Note: this article was originally published on the Press Gang website.
WHY HAS there been so little examination of Owen Smith’s career by the British press?
In the two weeks since Smith became Jeremy Corbyn’s sole challenger for the Labour leadership, journalists have largely accepted his CV at face value.
For national newspapers he’s a credible candidate.
“I want to be a force for good in the world. Therefore, you need to achieve power. Nye Bevan, my great hero, said it’s all about achieving and exercising power. I’ve devoted my life to that.”
No-one has drilled down into this statement.
A Press Gang investigation into Owen Smith’s 24 year career shows little dedication to politics — or any other profession:
he displayed no appetite for a political career — until he walked into a plum job for Cabinet Minister Paul Murphy.
he had no experience of lobbying — until he was appointed to handle “government affairs” for the UK branch of global pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
he had absolutely no journalistic experience — until he was appointed a producer at BBC Radio Wales.
The only constant in his working life is his father Dai Smith, historian-turned-broadcasting mandarin and a key figure in the Welsh establishment.
Dai Smith was a senior manager at BBC Wales for most of his son’s ten-year stint there — and he and his friends have been influential figures in his political career.
So is Owen Smith’s current high-profile the result of nepotism and patronage?
TWO DAYS after Owen Smith became the sole challenger to Jeremy Corbyn, the BBC published an article called “The Owen Smith Story”.
There’s a fascinating paragraph about his early career:
“After studying history and French at the University of Sussex, he joined BBC Wales as a radio producer. His father, Dai, was appointed editor of BBC Wales and head of programmes in the same year.”
Ignoring the inaccuracies — there has never been an editor of BBC Wales and Dai Smith didn’t become head of programmes until 1994 — it’s worth noting the order of these two sentences.
The first sentence says Owen Smith joined Radio Wales as a radio producer.
The second says his father was appointed editor of BBC Wales “in the same year”.
The impression being conveyed is that Owen was appointed first and his father Dai Smith second.
In other words, the egg (Owen) got his job before the chicken (Dai).
But, if that’s the case, why didn’t the BBC just say so?
Press Gang has been trying to solve this riddle.
We spoke to Dai Smith — he insisted that Owen was already working at BBC Wales when he arrived.
We asked BBC Wales boss Rhodri Talfan Davies which came first: Owen Egg or Chicken Dai?
There was no answer.
We also asked Owen Smith about this.
He never came back to us.
But then, out of the blue, we received an extraordinary email from the man who claims to have first employed him at BBC Wales …
AT FIVE o’clock on Monday night Nick Evans, a former senior producer on Radio Wales, wrote to us from Tenerife.
“Owen and Dai have forwarded the points you put to Dai about his role in Owen’s career,” he wrote.
“I hope I can clarify some aspects of the timeline.”
Nick Evans said that in the early 1990s he was working on the Meet For Lunch midday programme presented by Vincent Kane, BBC Wales’ leading presenter.
When Kane wasn’t able to present the programme, Dai Smith would often stand in.
On some of these occasions, in the summer and early autumn of 1992, Dai Smith brought the young Owen Smith into Broadcasting House in Cardiff and introduced him to Evans.
“As I did with anyone who approached me for work (it was Owen himself) and who was clearly bright, committed and possessed of proper integrity, I gave him some casual work.”
“So it is no surprise that he rose quickly — both in Wales and London.”
Press Gang asked Evans for more detail.
When he replied, there was a change of emphasis:
“When Owen started it was when he was still considering the Swansea option.
(Owen Smith had been planning to do an MA at Swansea University.)
“I liked him”, said Evans, “and knew he was considering his options and offered as I often did the chance to come in and ‘shadow’ / work as a researcher on MFL [Meet For Lunch].
After a few days unpaid work experience, Evans gave him paid freelance work.
“Then he got a contract job on the programme as a researcher through the next competitive board (which no-one other than myself had any say over, apart from HR [Human Resources].”
“He had no experience as such … but then again nor did many of the others who came through the same (yes loose) process.”
“It might not have been as rigorous a system as has became the norm but it had its merits and I can put my hand on (very self-examining) heart and say that Owen got where he got (when I had a say) absolutely because he was (often head and shoulders) the best person.”
When Dai Smith became Editor of Radio Wales, Evans said the two of them tried to avoid favouritism:
“… much of what myself and Dai attempted was to try and move away from the kind of nepotism that had pervaded the Welsh media for years … maybe didn’t work for long … but I tried.”
He made it clear that “Owen became (as Dai did) a close friend.”
Nick Evans’ comments leave many unanswered questions but it’s clear Dai Smith was already an important fixture at Radio Wales long before he was appointed Editor — and while his son was still a student at Sussex University.
It’s also clear that Dai Smith was instrumental in introducing his son to a senior producer on the Meet For Lunch programme.
The unanswered question is: would Owen Smith ever have got a foothold in the BBC if his father hadn’t been Dai Smith?
FOR TEN years Owen Smith was a competent but undistinguished broadcaster.
Neither Owen Smith nor the BBC would provide a detailed chronology of his career.
There’s no evidence Dai Smith intervened to further his son’s prospects.
There’s no evidence Owen Smith tried to take advantage of his father’s position.
Owen Smith worked on many radio programmes before moving to television producing the BBC Wales flagship political programme Dragon’s Eye.
Insiders say his Dragon’s Eye performance ranged from “tough and uncompromising” to “heavy-handed” with some accusations of “bullying” of junior staff.
For a spell he worked on the Radio 4 Today programme in London.
Owen Smith claimed there was a culture of bullying at Today.
Former Today editor Rod Liddle believed that charge was levelled against him because he had once criticised Smith.
Smith had been asked to arrange a police spokesman for the programme.
To the amazement of colleagues he picked up the phone and dialled 999 to arrange one.
The police complained.
” … there was a culture of shouting at Owen when he did something deranged”.
Liddle added that, aside from this one mistake, he was “perfectly competent”.
But Smith never secured promotion to senior editorial roles at the BBC, either in London or Cardiff.
By the early 2000s, according to one insider, he faced a future of either moving sideways — or out.
In 2000 the boss of BBC Wales, Geraint Talfan Davies, retired.
Talfan Davies had been a strong supporter of Dai Smith.
The new broom, Menna Richards, was not.
Dai Smith left BBC Wales to become Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glamorgan.
In 2002, Owen Smith also decided to switch tack — and became a special adviser to the South Wales MP, Paul Murphy, who was Secretary of State for Wales.
AGAIN, THERE’S no evidence of a political backstory.
Owen Smith is on record as saying the 1984 miners’ strike was his “political awakening” and that he joined the Labour Party when he was 16.
However, as far as the public record is concerned, he then seems to have lapsed into a political coma.
Press Gang asked him what other political activity he’d been involved in — student politics, constituency activism or involvement in local politics.
He didn’t answer the question.
His appointment as a “special advisor” to Paul Murphy, a veteran Labour MP representing the South Wales seat of Torfaen, came as a surprise to many Labour Party members in Wales.
Smith’s experience as a political journalist at BBC Wales qualified him to be a special adviser at the Wales Office.
But was another family connection also involved in the appointment?
Paul Murphy is a friend of Dai Smith.
Press Gang asked Murphy if this played any part in the appointment.
He replied saying it hadn’t.
We asked how Owen Smith came to be selected.
Murphy’s reply was enigmatic:
“He came from BBC Wales, although I knew his father through Welsh Labour history circles.”
Owen Smith was a special adviser until 2005 when he left to join the controversial US pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer.
But his political connections were powerful enough for him to secure the Labour nomination for the 2006 by-election in Blaenau Gwent.
Normally this was a safe Labour seat.
But Peter Law, the dominant Labour politician in the area, had fallen out with the party — and won the 2005 general election as an independent.
His death led to the 2006 by-election — and many expected the seat to return to Labour.
But Labour remained deeply unpopular in the constituency and Owen Smith failed to turn the tide — he was convincingly beaten by an ally of Law’s.
It was another four years before another opportunity arose, this time in Pontypridd.
The sitting Labour MP, Kim Howells, is another friend of the Smith family.
Owen Smith was selected and this time was elected MP — although with a reduced majority.
But he remains an elusive character for many in Welsh Labour — a man who seems to have emerged out of the shadows.
One Labour MP, who didn’t want to be named, told Press Gang he was a deeply unimpressive character:
“I can’t believe the Parliamentary Labour Party have been taken in by him.”
Within six years of taking Pontypridd, Owen Smith is a candidate for the Leadership of the Labour Party …
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