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On the Hunt: What James Murdoch's Leveson evidence tells us about public affairs

By Kevin Johnson |

April 25, 2012 | 6 min read

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been landed right in it following James Murdoch's evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on Media Ethics, over his dealings with News International over his decision as to whether to give the go-ahead for the BSkyB takeover deal, and is now fighting for his job. Kevin Johnson from consultancy RJF Public Affairs in Birmingham offers his reaction to the revelations, and what impact they will have on the public affairs sector.

The danger of commenting on a fast moving story - especially with media at its heart - is that events will soon overtake and make the author's snapshot analysis seem at best dated, at worst miles wide. Hours after I write, it's possible Jeremy Hunt will either resign or at least face an Urgent Question in the House; whilst the father of today's star witness will himself take the stand. Given that proviso, I'll opine away.

Recent scandals have shaken up conduct in public life. From MP's expenses to party funding; newspaper practices to police ethics there is little hitherto hidden business that has not come into focus. Hackgate and the resulting Leveson Inquiry is the blockbuster, fusing dodgy dealings of politicians, press and police in one space.

What will today's revelations do to the Government and Messrs Cameron and Hunt in particular? Cameron has good wars. He dealt with the expenses scandal well, whilst in opposition, making a mockery of the then PM's handling even though the Tories were, in many ways, the worst culprits.

Although slow to react to what we now term Hackgate (apart from the likes of Tom Watson, Nick Davies and a few others, who wasn't?) he eventually came through in acceptable shape after one of Ed Miliband's best performances. His relationship with the Murdoch clan, including Rebekah Brooks, has always been embarrassing (especially on whether he did have relations with that horse) but he's been able to use the excuse that leaders of both main parties have played the game.

Against the backdrop of a poor month for the Government, today's revelations just add to the accusations of incompetence and (for some at least) impropriety. Will it bring the Government down? As it stands now I doubt it, but it's a severe knock to credibility and trust. Never mind deficit and debt reduction, these are the most important trading currencies for Government.

As for Hunt, like all ministers in a crisis it won't be the deed but how he handles the fallout which will determine his fate. He's been a strong performer for Government. An Olympics without major hitch would probably have catapulted him into a big office in a late summer reshuffle. That now looks a forlorn hope. His other two major policy planks don't look in great health. More philanthropy for the arts is not looking strong after the budget (if it ever was), whilst his Local TV project has always appeared a case of hope over experience.

The email trails and witness statements bring the world of public affairs centre stage. David Cameron said some time ago that the next major scandal would be lobbying. He'd know - he was Head of Corporate Affairs for Carlton Communications at the same time as I managed Public Affairs for its subsidiary, Central TV.

Today's evidence shines a light on how public affairs professionals work to persuade Government and Parliament on behalf of their masters. The other side of the lobbying coin, the Special Adviser, enters the spotlight too.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of News Corps' approach to securing the takeover of BSkyB and the Government's handling - especially with a Minister acting in a quasi-judicial capacity - I hope this is the beginning of the end of antiquated lobbying.

Information and connections will always be important in influencing public policy in pursuit of corporate goals. Companies and other organisations need professionals who understand the machinery of Government, Parliament and public bodies. Communication needs to be undertaken with intelligence; relationships formed with professionalism as well as humanity. What should change, though, is that confidential or privileged information - from either side - should not be traded carelessly, unfairly or illegally.

The acid test is whether the ins and outs of a public policy process, when open to sunlight weeks, months or years later, appear to be above board on both sides. That test is being applied very soon after contemporary events in both Court 73 and the court of public opinion.

There is a place for both public affairs officers and special advisers. Indeed, I would argue they are essential in developing policy solutions that satisfy the public good. You wouldn't expect court proceedings without lawyers or a set of financial results to bypass accountants. So, too, politics needs professionals. The profession, though, needs to be more far more intelligent, transparent and altogether professional.

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