Given the trouble they cause, you might wonder why senior politicians bother employing special advisers, or "spads" to use the shorthand.
Think of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's irascible spin doctor and the "dodgy dossiers" on Iraq. Or Damian McBride, Gordon Brown's spad, who resigned in 2009 after conspiring to smear Tory politicians on the internet.
After that, Mr Brown came out with the oxymoronic sound bite. "I take full responsibility for what happened, which is why the person responsible went immediately." Then there was the former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, David Cameron's special adviser who had to resign last year over the phone hacking affair, raising serious questions about Mr Cameron's judgment in employing him in the first place.
And now, both the UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the First Minister Alex Salmond are up to their necks in spad company. Mr Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith has resigned for displaying partiality to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and for providing valuable inside information on the Government's thinking on its merger with satellite broadcaster, BSkyB. Meanwhile, over in Bute House, one of Mr Salmond's advisers, Geoff Aberdein, is being attacked by the Scottish opposition parties for suggesting his boss was also prepared to fight Mr Murdoch's corner in his bid for BSkyB.
So who are these people and why are they needed? Special advisers are not like impartial civil servants. Their job is to explain, cajole, inform, distract and, in some cases, mislead members of the press or influential lobbyists who demand the ear of the minister. Top special advisers are doppelgangers, who need to have instinctive, intuitive understanding of the way their bosses' minds work. A spad needs to speak with absolute authority on behalf of the inister. To all intents and purposes, spads like Adam Smith are the minister, when they are speaking about key matters of policy.
This is why it is so difficult for Mr Hunt to draw a line under the Murdoch access affair by allowing his special adviser to fall on his sword. Yes, Mr Smith did go too far in his dealings with the News Corp lobbyist, Frederic Michel, giving him market sensitive information and informing him in advance of the minister's intentions. No, he wasn't instructed to do this by his boss. However, so close is the relationship that must exist between a spad and a minister that Mr Michel was entitled to conclude that he was effectively speaking with the minister when he was speaking to Mr Smith. And the guidelines for ministers makes it very clear that the minister takes responsibility for them.
Mr Hunt was exercising a semi-judicial authority in adjudicating on the BSkyB merger, and you could hardly imagine a judge allowing one of his clerks to be going around feeding information to one side. This is why there is a strong possibility Mr Hunt will follow Mr Smith out of office. It beggars belief that his spad could have been conducting these transactions without the minister's knowledge, and if Mr Hunt really didn't know, then that itself is a dereliction of responsibility which makes him unsuitable for ministerial office. There is also a taint of dishonesty in using a spad as a human shield. As recently as Tuesday night, Mr Hunt was insisting that his special adviser had behaved entirely properly – it was only in the cold light of the morning press that he decided otherwise.
Geoff Aberdein is one of Alex Salmond's younger advisers, appointed in 2007 when he was only 24. But he is also able to speak the mind of the First Minister, and there is no doubt that Mr Salmond offered to lobby the UK Department of Media, Culture and Sport on Rupert Murdoch's behalf. Mr Salmond says he was only interested in attracting jobs to Scotland, and that may be true. But the opposition parties suspect that it was his own political interests he was promoting, cosying up to Mr Murdoch in the hope that the Sun newspaper would support the SNP in the 2011 Scottish election – which it almost did. Mr Murdoch has since tweeted that Mr Salmond is the best politician in Britain.
Now, Mr Salmond does not have any power over Competition Commission issues – that's reserved to the UK Parliament. There is no suggestion that Mr Aberdein leaked inside information or acted improperly. He only said that Mr Salmond would be prepared to bat for Rupert, and in the end, the FM never did. But why was the SNP leader so keen to suck up to this octogenarian newspaper proprietor who has been no friend of Scottish nationalism, except for a brief editorial flirtation nearly 20 years ago? In the 2007 election, the Sun's contribution was to place a noose in the form of an SNP logo on its front page on polling day. Mr Salmond wanted the support of the Sun, of course. But at the cost of his integrity? The First Minister's flirting with the Murdoch mafia is hardly going to win votes in Scotland.
Politicians always over-estimate the influence of newspapers. And they are surprisingly naive sometimes in their dealings with newspaper proprietors. It is astonishing that Mr Cameron, freshly elected as Prime Minister, should have spent so much time ingratiating himself with Mr Murdoch. What was the PM doing having a Christmas dinner in 2010 with the Murdoch clan and Rebekah Brooks, where the BSkyB merger was bound to come up? It is breathtaking that he hired Andy Coulson who had already resigned over the phone-hacking allegations. There is compelling evidence that the Government did all it could to promote the BSkyB merger, giving Mr Murdoch access denied to the BBC-led consortium that opposed the merger.
This is too much. Politicians need to be saved from themselves. It's time to introduce new rules on cross-media ownership, to prevent individual proprietors having so much power that politicians feel they have to win them over to win elections. Hopefully, that is what Lord Leveson will demand. The phone-hacking scandal has revealed a British state dominated by an oligarchy of top policemen, newspaper proprietors and wealthy individuals who control our politics, just as the oligarchs run Russia. Political leaders have flown too close to the Sun; it's time they came down to earth.
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