By Bob Duncan
A Special Advisor to Alex Salmond has been cleared of all wrongdoing by Scotland’s top civil servant, following accusations made against him by the Scottish Labour Party.
Opposition MSPs had accused the First Minister’s advisor, Geoff Aberdein, of breaching the code of conduct for advisors, alleging that he had inappropriate contact with representatives of News Corp during their planned takeover of BSkyB.
The complaint arose following evidence given to the Leveson Inquiry on press standards, during which an email was read out suggesting Mr Salmond’s adviser had said the First Minister had agreed to call the UK culture secretary about BSkyB.
Labour MSP James Kelly tried to compare the case with that of Adam Smith, the former adviser to UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt who quit the job after admitting his contact with the company “went too far”.
But, in his ruling, Sir Peter, permanent secretary to the Scottish government, said a meeting between Mr Aberdein and News Corp public affairs director Frederic Michel on 11 February 2011 took place with Mr Salmond’s full knowledge and authority.
In a letter to Mr Kelly, Sir Peter stated: “In his dealings with News Corporation, the first minister was not carrying out any statutory function in connection with the regulation of the media. His interest was in relation to BSkyB as a significant private employer in Scotland and the potential for the creation of additional jobs here.
“The investigating officer concluded that there had been no breach of the code of conduct for special advisers or the Scottish ministerial code. At no time did Mr Aberdein misuse his position or information acquired in the course of his official duties.”
The clearing of Mr. Aberdein’s name was announced by Alex Salmond during his evidence to the Leveson enquiry. This was one of a number of recent Scottish Labour smears which were comprehensively scotched by the First Minister as he gave evidence today (Wednesday).
Labour had alleged that Alex Salmond had “cut a deal” with Murdoch such that Sun support for the SNP would lead to SNP support for the BSkyB consolidation. The First Minister’s evidence made it clear that no such deal was ever made, and showed that such an arrangement would have been impossible.
Enquiry counsel Mr Robert Jay QC inquired, “did you contact James Murdoch in order to seek support for the SNP?”.
“No”, said the First Minister, stating that his only aim had been to ensure that there was no block placed in the path of the editor of the Scottish Sun declaring support for the SNP, adding that if he had made any such suggestion to Rupert Murdoch, he would have been told to contact the individual newspaper editors.
Labour are now saying that the evidence heard today does not get round the fact that Alex Salmond supported the Murdochs even after the phone hacking scandal emerged. Mr Salmond replies that his concern then – and now – remains the Scottish economy.
He pointed out that BSkyB involved more than six thousand jobs in Scotland. His concern had been to secure their future and, if possible, enhance those numbers. Indeed, Mr Salmond is now pursuing a meeting with the new boss of BSkyB – again with jobs in mind.
Labour had also complained that the first Minister had refused to say whether his own phone had been hacked, Mr Salmond had said repeatedly that Leveson was the appropriate place to discuss this. In the event, the enquiry heard that his phone had not been hacked, but that his bank account had been accessed by the Observer newspaper over a decade ago.
Overall, the First Minister handled the enquiry with dignity, honesty and good humour in stark contrast to each of his opposition counterparts. In doing so he silenced his critics and enhanced his own reputation as well as that of his party