Geoff Aberdein, special adviser to First Minister Alex Salmond, was today cleared of wrongdoing over his contact with News Corporation by the Scottish Government’s top civil servant.
Permanent Secretary Sir Peter Housden has written to Labour’s chief whip at Holyrood, James Kelly MSP, concluding no breach of the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers or the Scottish Ministerial Code occurred.
The disclosure comes on the same day as Salmond appeared before the Leveson Inquiry into press standards where he confirmed his phone had not been hacked, albeit he claimed that the Observer newspaper accessed his bank account. Guardian News and media, publisher of the Sunday broadsheet, has since said allegations were investigated previously and no evidence found.
Kelly MSP wrote to Sir Housden on the last day in April calling for an investigation into the conduct of Aberlain after emails produced by former chairman and chief executive of News Corp, James Murdoch, showed the special adviser had agreed the First Minister would call the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, “whenever we need him to”. Hunt, at the time, had been tasked with the quasi-legal decision of whether to sanction a takeover of BSkyB by NewsCorp.
Communications between Frederic Michel, Director of Public Affairs at News Corp and former Special Adviser to Tory MP Hunt, Adam Smith – which culminated in the latter’s resignation amid allegations he participated in inappropriate discussions – served as a comparison with an email referring to a meeting which took place between Mr Aberdein and Mr Michel on 11 February 2011, Kelly MSP said.
However, Sir Housden today cleared Aberdein of acting contrary to the rules after evidence provided to Leveson and the circumstances in which Hunt’s former aide resigned, were considered. A meeting that the First Minister had with James Murdoch on 11 January 2011 which Mr Aberdein attended, a letter from the First Minister to Mr Murdoch on 25 January 2011, and the purpose of the meeting between Mr Aberdein and Mr Michel which took place on 11 February 2011, were also taken into account.
The meeting between Mr Aberdein and Mr Michel early last year took place with Salmond’s full knowledge and authority and revolved around discussions concerning BSkyB’s operations in Scotland and the potential for further investment, Sir Housden said.
He added: “In these circumstances, the Investigating Officer concluded that there was no parallel at all between the discussions and meetings that took place between Mr Michel and Mr Hunt’s Special Adviser regarding the Secretary of State’s consideration of the BSkyB bid and the contact that Mr Aberdein had with him.
“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 inScotlandand the potential for the creation of additional jobs here. Mr Aberdein acted throughout with the First Minister’s full authority.
“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. Nor did he disclose confidential information. His contacts with News International, as a media organisation, were authorised by the First Minister.
“I have given careful consideration to her conclusions and am satisfied that there has been no breach of either Code. I am supported in that by the Scottish Ministerial Code which states clearly that “nothing in this Code should be taken as preventing Ministers from fulfilling their proper function of encouraging investment in economic activity to the benefit and prosperity of the people ofScotland.”
“I believe that Mr Aberdein has acted at all times with that objective in mind.”