Brit Pols Use Private Email to Evade Public Scrutiny

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By Maeve McClenaghan

The emoticons probably don’t exist to express how British Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt is feeling this week as his political career stumbles toward extinction. Under pressure to resign, following allegations of improper communication in his department with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Hunt announced today that he will hand over his private texts and emails to the media ethics inquiry led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson.

The move is intended to clarify how implicated Hunt is in the scandal, by documenting his personal correspondence with special adviser Adam Smith, who resigned Wednesday. The emails that have surfaced from his department suggest it was working hand in glove with the Murdoch media, which has been accused of everything from bugging newsmakers’ phones to using its editorial clout to unduly influence Britain’s elected government during its failed bid to purchase British Sky Broadcasting (B2B),

Hunt was supposed to be acting as an impartial judge in the B2B deal, which would have increased the Murdochs control of British media. He was responsible for deciding whether News Corp. would be allowed to take full control ofB2B, in which it holds a 39 percent stake.

The Murdochs also wield tremendous political influence in the United States, where they own The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and The New York Post.

“I will be handing over all my private texts and emails to my special advisor to the Leveson inquiry and I am confident they will vindicate that I handled the BSkyB merger process with total propriety,” Hunt announced.

Earlier this week, over 160 pages of emails were provided to the Leveson inquiry.

Hunt, who approved the takeover proposal in March 2011, has been under pressure to resign since the inquiry disclosed 163 emails from New Corps lobbyist Frédéric Michel to his office. Most were directed to Smith, who acknowledged that the exchanges “went too far.”

In one email to James Murdoch — then the chairman of BSkyB — Michel reported that Hunt sought his assistance finding ” as many legal errors as we can” in a regulatory report that raised concerns about the proposed takeover.

“Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal!) Press statement at 7.30am,” the public servant dutifully reported to Rupert Murdoch (right) in another email. “Lots of legal issues around the statement so he has tried to get a version which helps us by qualifying the threats” identified by the regulator.”

The takeover bid collapsed in July after a phone-hacking scandal engulfed Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid.

The latest Murdoch-related scandal highlights the cozy relationships between British politicians and lobbyists, as well as the complex relationship between ministers like Hunt and special advisers like Smith. It also reveals how government advisers use personal email accounts and text messages on official business to escape public scrutiny.

Government departments’ official email accounts are subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, meaning anyone can ask to see correspondence. Indeed, the current government has often spoken out about its commitment to transparency.

“We are creating a new era of transparency – information is power,” Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in the Telegraph last year. “It lets people hold the powerful to account, giving them the tools they need to take on politicians and bureaucrats.”

Hunt’s handing of his emails and texts could be seen as an attempt to follow this push for transparency. However, it also suggest that ministers and their special advisors may be using personal email and mobile phone accounts for departmental business to escape the burdens of transparency.

This is not the first time the use of private emails to discuss official government business has come to light.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has recently been embroiled in a skirmish with the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham, over his department’s use of private emails.

Last year the Financial Times reported that Gove was using a private email address, under the name ”Mrs Blurt” to discuss government business with his advisors.

Leaked emails to the FT also revealed Gove’s special assistant Dominic Cummings explicitly telling his colleagues that he “will not answer any further e-mails to my official DfE account.”

“I will only answer things that come from gmail accounts from people who i know who they are,” Cummings said. “i suggest that you do the same in general but thats obv up to you guys – i can explain in person the reason for this.

In a ruling last month the Information Commissioner decided that the private emails dealt with departmental business and therefore should be covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

The Department for Education is reportedly considering whether to appeal the decision.

So, that is two governmental departments that have been shown to be using private emails to discuss official business over the last year. The Information Commissioner’s ruling on Gove did not touch on text messages.

Cameron is resisting calls for his adviser on the ministerial code, Sir Alex Allan, to investigate whether Hunt broke the rules set for ministers. It is now down to the Leveson Inquiry to scrutinize Hunt’s personal emails and text messages.

Meanwhile, with loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act seemingly being exploited by officials, only leaked personal emails and text messages will show the public what Ministers are really saying.

One can only imagine the type of emoticons peppering Hunt’s text messages today.

An earleir version of this story was originally published by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism at http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/04/27/analysis-how-government-uses-private-emails-and-texts-to-evade-scrutiny/