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The Guardian won public plaudits for its bold exposés of Tory sleaze. So why is it trying to warn everybody off a freelance journalist's own investigation of the Neil Hamilton affair? asks James Heartfield

Cash, questions and answers

Former Tory minister Neil Hamilton may or may not be guilty of taking illicit payments to ask parliamentary questions in the 1980s; I am not particularly concerned either way. What does concern me, however, is the way that public discussion of the issues raised by the case is being curtailed today. An investigative journalist, Jonathan Hunt, has been branded an unethical fantasist and virtually accused of blasphemy, for suggesting that there is no hard evidence that Hamilton did it. Whatever any of us think of Hamilton, the attempt to discredit Jonathan Hunt and warn people off even considering his story is a worrying development. It raises questions about press standards and journalistic freedom that are of far wider importance than the fate of an ex-Tory MP.

Jonathan Hunt has spent the last nine months investigating the Guardian's 'cash-for-questions' story, and the subsequent inquiry run by Sir Gordon Downey, the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The Downey inquiry concluded that there was 'compelling evidence' that Neil Hamilton had taken cash bribes from Mohammed Al Fayed to ask questions in the House of Commons. Much of the evidence before Downey was supplied by the Guardian newspaper.

Now Jonathan Hunt has produced a lengthy report which concludes that Neil Hamilton should not have been found guilty of the charges brought against him. These charges, says Hunt, were largely concocted by the wealthy businessman Mohammed Al Fayed as part of his personal grudge against Hamilton. They were published by the Guardian newspaper as part of its campaign against Conservative government sleaze. And finally they were endorsed by the Downey inquiry, under pressure to prove that the new system of parliamentary regulation worked.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has gone ballistic over Hunt's 107 page report, 'Fayed, the Guardian and a Cover-up', denouncing it as 'a work of fiction and malevolent fantasy'. As well as rubbishing Hunt's (modest but respectable) credentials as a journalist, Rusbridger issued an all-purpose warning to any paper which might be tempted to run the story:

'Anyone who is claiming to talk about journalistic ethics who uses that document in support is so far detached from reality that their case is automatically and immediately undermined.' (UK Press Gazette, 23 January 1998)

That is a remarkable statement from the editor of a leading national newspaper. It seems that anybody who even questions the Guardian line is to be deemed unethical, 'automatically and immediately' putting themselves beyond the pale. Hunt says that he has already been warned of a possible libel action and the publication of damaging, and unfounded, allegations about his previous career in the road haulage business. When I talked to a member of the Guardian's sleaze-busting team, David Henke, he was clear: anybody who thinks that the Guardian got it wrong over Hamilton must, by definition, have some kind of ulterior motive.

In fact Hunt's main motivation seems to be frustration that nobody will put their prejudices aside and consider the evidence he has gathered. With the Guardian bristling defensively, the chances of a rational debate are slim. Whatever the truth or otherwise of Hunt's allegations, nobody has yet even reported the story in the wake of Alan Rusbridger's edict. The Guardian dedicated thousands of feet of newsprint to putting its case against Hamilton, yet has so far refused to respond to the questions Jonathan Hunt has raised. The result of all this is that people are being denied the chance to consider all sides of the story. That kind of selective attitude to the evidence cannot be healthy for public debate on any issue.

It is not hard to understand why the Guardian might be upset about Jonathan Hunt's allegations. The exposure of Neil Hamilton as a corrupt politician, bought by Harrods owner Mohammed Al Fayed, was a turning point for the newspaper. Exposing Hamilton's corruption was a key moment in a campaign that culminated in the exposure of Tory minister Jonathan Aitken. The Guardian's reputation as the fearless enemy of corruption was made by facing down libel actions from Hamilton and Aitken. Even staunch rivals wearily acknowledge that the Guardian's sleaze-busting has made it the paper of the moment.

Those of us with no stake in the Hamilton story, however, are entitled to hear the case for the defence and judge for ourselves, whatever edict Alan Rusbridger might issue. So what is Hunt's story that the Guardian says I should not report - and, by implication, that you should not read? In the interests of free speech, here is an outline.

Hunt's argument is that there are important inconsistencies in the evidence against Neil Hamilton. In particular, Hunt alleges that the one serious charge of which Hamilton was found guilty by Downey, that of accepting cash bribes from Mohammed Al Fayed, only surfaced halfway through the sleaze investigation, when Al Fayed turned on his former Tory allies and decided to embellish the case against them.

The story begins in November 1985 when Egyptian millionaire Mohammed Al Fayed employed Ian Greer Associates, a lobbying firm, to help him promote his business interests, at a price of £25 000 a year (just over £2000 a month). Al Fayed had just bought House of Fraser (including Harrods), to the irritation of his long-standing rival Tiny Rowland. In return Rowland lobbied the Department of Trade and Industry to investigate the Al Fayed brothers' questionable past. An investigation would threaten Mohammed Al Fayed's application for British citizenship. He wanted allies in high places.

One of the MPs that Ian Greer enlisted to help Al Fayed was Neil Hamilton, the abrasive right-winger who had sued Panorama in 1983 for implying that he was a fascist. Between November 1985 and May 1989 Hamilton asked nine written parliamentary questions and put down three early day motions, generally supporting Al Fayed against the DTI investigation. Hamilton stayed six nights at Al Fayed's Ritz Hotel in Paris at the millionaire's expense.

Most damaging for Hamilton, Ian Greer Associates had made payments to him of £4000 and £6000 for introducing clients National Nuclear Corporation and US Tobacco to Greer around the same period. Those payments were not recorded in the register of parliamentary interests (Hunt claims this was in line with the less exacting standards of the register at that time). They were, however, recorded in Ian Greer's accounts - which Hunt points out meant that they could be proved to be legitimate payments and not bribes.

In July 1993, the Guardian began investigating Ian Greer Associates. Then editor Peter Preston applied a time-honoured principle of investigative journalism: follow the money. At that time, says Hunt, the Guardian was working on the theory that the commission fees paid to MPs for introducing clients to Greer were disguised bribes for asking questions in parliament. In the event, however, as Hunt notes, nobody has been able to prove that those commission payments were bent. Indeed, the Downey inquiry eventually conceded that 'there is no evidence that Mr Hamilton received cash from Mr Al Fayed indirectly through Mr Greer'.

Yet Jonathan Hunt suggests that it was this allegation of indirect bribery, rather than envelopes of cash from Al Fayed, that the Guardian investigation was focused on when two of its journalists, David Henke and John Mullin, interviewed Neil Hamilton on 22 July 1993. The notes of that interview were presented to the Downey inquiry as evidence against Hamilton. The final note read: 'Asked about the brown paper bag, he was by this stagd [sic], somewhat agitated and began his increasing level of threats about [libel lawyer] Peter Carter-Ruck.' For Downey, that note was proof that the cash-for-questions allegations about brown envelopes were a part of the Guardian's investigation as early as July 1993.

Jonathan Hunt, however, sees inconsistencies in the evidence. That key sentence, he says, appears in a computer record of the interview, but not in John Mullin's shorthand notes - it is the only difference between the two. The shorthand notes show only this response from Hamilton: 'never received any payments other than those declared in the Register of Members Interests.' Hunt suggests that this was Hamilton's answer, not to a question about envelopes of cash from Al Fayed, but to the same, rather general, question which the Guardian posed to Tim Smith MP, as part of the same investigation: 'Have you ever been paid for any Parliamentary business without registering it?'

Hunt notes that Mullin's shorthand notes were produced as evidence in the 1995 libel trial as well as the 1997 Downey inquiry. However, he points out, the additional computer record of the 1993 interview, with the extra sentence about 'the brown paper bag', was not surrendered to the 1995 trial, though it appeared before Downey two years later.

The exact record of the 1993 interview matters, according to Hunt, because it can determine whether or not a charge of receiving cash-for-questions was made against Hamilton at that stage. Hunt says that after the interview Hamilton had indeed threatened the Guardian with a libel action - but only over the allegations that he had acted improperly in accepting his stay in the Ritz.

According to Hunt, the charge that Hamilton took direct cash-for-questions was only made by Al Fayed a year later, when, in September 1994, the European Court of Human Rights rejected his bid to have the report of the Department of Trade and Industry inquiry into his business activities suppressed. A furious Al Fayed immediately turned on his former friends in the Tory party.

Neil Hamilton had just been promoted to a minister at the DTI. Al Fayed later told Brian Hitchen of the Sunday Express that he paid £50 000 to Greer, which Greer split between Hamilton and Tim Smith MP. These early accusations may correspond to Al Fayed's own understanding of the relationship with Ian Greer. But as that proved to be insufficient evidence of direct bribery, Hunt alleges, Al Fayed embellished his story further.

In October 1994 Al Fayed told the Guardian that the money (now increased to £8-10 000 a month) paid to Greer was direct payment for questions asked, and that Hamilton had free shopping at Harrods. Then in December, Hunt notes, Fayed changed his story again in a letter to the Select Committee on Members' Interests, saying that Hamilton was paid £20 000 directly in brown envelopes, as well as £8000 in Harrods gift vouchers.

Hunt records that only days before the 1995 libel trial was due to open did Al Fayed produce witnesses to say that Hamilton had received cash directly - all of whom were loyal employees of Mohammed Al Fayed at the time of the alleged bribes. The statements from these witnesses, says Hunt, are the only direct evidence of Hamilton having taken cash. Jonathan Hunt's report raises serious questions about the credibility and consistency of those witnesses' evidence.

Jonathan Hunt's story, then, is essentially this: that the Downey inquiry found Neil Hamilton guilty of taking cash-for-questions largely on the basis of a case prepared by the Guardian, which in turn was largely based on the wildly shifting allegations of Mohammed Al Fayed - who had also accused home secretary Michael Howard of taking one and a half million pounds from Tiny Rowland.

Why has Hunt's story not even been reported in the newspapers? Is it because his research is obviously just, as Rusbridger says, a partisan fantasy? Or is it rather that Hunt's allegations simply go too far against the grain of British politics in 1998, when Neil Hamilton is the Tory that everybody loves to hate and the Guardian is the newspaper with the spotless reputation for uncovering the truth about Tory corruption?

Did the Guardian really have a convincing case against Neil Hamilton, or did it get carried away with its self-appointed role of Guarding the nation's morals? People deserve to be treated as mature enough to judge for themselves, on the basis of all the available evidence, rather than being told what is right by newspaper editors or anybody else. You do not have to give a damn about Neil Hamilton to see the importance of that principle.

Jonathan Hunt's Trial by Conspiracy is published later this year

What did the Guardian ask Neil Hamilton on the terrace of the House of Commons on 22 July 1993?

According to Jonathan Hunt
The evidence does not prove that the Guardian journalists John Mullin and David Henke asked Hamilton whether he had received cash directly from Mohammed Al Fayed - even though Downey assumed that it did. The type-written version of Mullin's notes, that seems to contain a question about receiving cash in brown envelopes, only turned up in public half way through the Downey inquiry some years later.

According to John Mullin

Mullin insists the type-written note was made from shorthand notes that day. So why was it not presented to the 1995 libel trial like every other document? 'I can't comment on that.' Did you ask Neil Hamilton specifically about receiving cash directly from Mohammed Al Fayed? 'We asked Neil Hamilton did he receive any money for asking parliamentary questions on behalf of Mohammed Al Fayed.'

James Heartfield

Reproduced from LM issue 108, March 1998

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