Oliver Wright: Now we know the power of the cosy chat

From private dinners to secret emails - none of it needs to be declared and none is


On 3 March last year, in the middle of News Corp's attempt to take over BSkyB, Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, stood up in Parliament and made the following statement to MPs: "Today we are publishing all the documents relating to all the meetings... all the submissions we received, all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation. People can thereby judge for themselves whether the process has been completely fair, impartial and above board."

We now know – ironically thanks to News Corp's new policy of devastating transparency – that he was lying. Behind the scenes, hundreds of secret and cosy text messages, emails and phone calls were taking place between Mr Hunt's personal (and political) special adviser and News Corp's chief lobbyist, Fred Michel. None of these was declared. Mr Hunt misled Parliament and, for that alone, he should resign.

But the affair leads to an even more troubling conclusion which calls into question the integrity of the whole Government. In the past 18 months, as one lobbying controversy after another has unfolded, we have been repeatedly assured that "lobbyists may lobby" but they have "no influence" over the decisions of ministers or Government policy. Look, they say, we publish the details of all the meetings in a clear, transparent way. It's "rubbish" that companies like Bell Pottinger have a back door to the heart of Government.

But how can we believe them when we now know they deliberately misled us over one of the most high-profile and sensitive takeovers in recent years. If it could happen there – what on earth is happening with less-scrutinised Government decisions?

Take just two examples. Despite fierce criticism from doctors, this Government has repeatedly refused to legislate to force food companies to reduce sugar, salt and fat content. Nothing to do with lobbying, they say. All our meetings are declared. We just think it's better to work with the industry than against it. And what about planning? Despite uproar from conservationists, the Government pushed plans to bulldoze greenfield sites for houses instead of redeveloping more expensive brownfield sites. Again nothing to do with lobbying, say ministers. All our meetings are declared. No information is released by the Government to suggest that either developers or food companies have had any influence over policy.

Thanks to Mr Hunt, we now know how it's done: secret emails, cosy phone chats and private dinners with special advisers. None of it needs to be declared and none of it is. Before the last election, David Cameron (a former special adviser himself) said lobbying would be the next scandal to hit British politics. He was right. He would know. And now he is also to blame.


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