15 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 24


Is nice Mr Rusbridger becoming Britain's Porkie-in-Chief?


y wife Marigold says, 'Do you have to go on about that nice Mr Rusbridger?' The answer is: yes — duty calls. Last Friday the Guardian devoted nearly all its front page to the report of the parliamentary standards committee on the Neil Hamilton case. Its main headline read, 'Nine votes to nil — he took the cash.' Guardian readers were led to infer from this statement in quotation marks that it came directly from the report. Not so. There is no such sen- tence in the report. On the contrary, the relevant sentence in the report says some- thing quite different: the committee 'did not arrive at a practicable way of reaching a judgment' (on the cash issue). Reporting its findings correctly, the Times stated, 'The committee failed to decide whether he was guilty of taking cash from Mohammed Al Fayed.' The Independent said the same: `Neil Hamilton's bid to clear himself of "cash for questions" allegations ended in disarray yesterday when a committee of MPs failed to agree on the charge.' The Telegraph's headline was, 'Hamilton inquiry fails to reach verdict on key issue.'

In short, the Guardian's main front-page headline contradicted the text of the report. And no one else said the words the Guardian headlined in quotes. They were a hyped-up version of a curious statement from the committee's chairman, Robert Sheldon, who had conspicuously failed to get the unanimously guilty verdict he had fought for and was putting his own tenden- tious gloss on what it had wearily agreed to say. On its front page the Guardian desper- ately concentrated on Sheldon's gloss rather than the report itself. But there were other glosses. Another member of the com- mittee, Quentin Davies, described its pro- ceedings as `shambolic'. The Independent reported him as saying, 'This is an appalling abdication of the fundamental responsibili- ty of the committee to head an appeal properly and to come to a conclusion.' Another member, Ann Widdecombe, said Sheldon's proceedings were 'not compati- ble with natural justice' and on the 'crucial issue' had finished 'without any verdict at all'. The Independent reported that she abstained in the final vote on the report and Davies voted against it. So the Guardian's main front-page headline is not merely misleading, it is a bare-faced false- hood. Indeed I would call it a deliberate lie.

You may ask: since the Guardian and its chief — virtually its only — informant, the billionaire Mohamed Fayed, have already ruined Hamilton, almost bankrupted him, destroyed his reputation and his political career and taken away his livelihood, why do they need to go on misleading readers? The answer is that 'nice Mr Rusbridger' is not yet convinced he has made himself safe. In fact he is behaving like a frightened man. He is worried the Hamilton affair could yet turn into a Dreyfus case, and that he himself as the main hunter will be hunt- ed himself in turn, and destroyed, as were Major Henry, Esterhazy and the others who did down the innocent Jewish captain. He is particularly concerned that things could be closing in on Fayed and that this bad man, who has had dealings with the Guardian for a long time and knows some of the paper's secrets, might suddenly turn nasty. Oscar Wilde once described his deal- ings with rent-boys as 'feasting with pan- thers'. Rusbridger, like his predecessor, Peter Preston, has been feasting with a Nile cobra.

One looming danger for Rusbridger is Fayed's ill-judged libel action against Vani- ty Fair. I hold no brief for Vanity Fair — quite the contrary — but I believe that the magazine may for once perform an impor- tant public service. It has undertaken a full- scale investigation into Fayed's doings, which is still continuing, and has already produced some hair-raising material, fully documented and with sworn statements, affidavits and the like. Fayed is central to the Guardian's vendetta against Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken, and it is becoming clear that nothing Fayed says can be trust- ed. The last straw for many people was when he was caught out inventing Princess Diana's 'last words'. The Fayed tapes which Hamilton produced, including his amazing claim to have fathered 200 illegitimate chil- dren, make it clear what kind of man the Guardian's chief informant is. That is why Rusbridger has made Fayed's doings a no- go area for his paper's 'investigative reporters'. Students of slanted news should compare the Guardian's coverage of Hamilton's evidence about Fayed when the former MP appeared before the standards committee with that of other broadsheets — it is quite an eye-opener. As the Guardian owns the Observer, and Rus- bridger is its editor-in-chief, I was surprised that it was allowed to give front-page cover- age to the new police investigation into Harrods safe-deposits. As Hamilton demonstrated to the standards committee, what happens to stuff inside a Harrods safe-deposit is relevant to Fayed's charac- ter, and so to his quality as a witness. So it's odd that the Observer was permitted to give such prominence to the story, which also appeared in the Sunday Times. However, the story in the Observer made no reference to Fayed, and another story the paper has got about him — and a much more sensa- tional one — has not so far appeared.

Readers may say, like Marigold, why bother about Rusbridger, who is, after all, only a jumped-up gossip columnist playing at being a proper editor? The answer is that I care about the Guardian, which used to be a decent, honest and honourable albeit exasperating — paper, and has now become little more than a collection of gos- sip columns (and soft porn), a sort of daily, tyrannosaurus Rex version of Private Eye, which targets 'enemies', runs vendettas and engages in ruthless character assassination. Also, I have a personal interest. Rusbridger believes that anyone who criticises him must, by definition, be insane, and both he himself and his gossip columnists have pub- licly branded me as certifiable. Not long ago the Guardian demanded that I take a psychiatric test. I replied that I would be happy to take such a test, provided that Rusbridger took a lie-detector test. That is the last we heard of his challenge. He also ran for cover when I offered to take part in a public debate with him, which the BBC would be glad to televise, on the subject of `The Ethics and Veracity of the Guardian Newspaper'. The Guardian has for a long time systematically, almost daily, published falsehoods about me. Last week on the BBC one of its apparatchiks openly boast- ed about their campaign against me. So I am an expert on Rusbridger's mendacity. I have an amazing collection of faxes from him, which accompanied his attempts to persuade Conrad Black, the owner of The Spectator, to suppress this column. Like most gossip columnists, Rusbridger seems to regard truth as a hostile stranger. Since he will not take a lie-detector test or debate his veracity with me in public, will he now give me one good reason why I should not, in future, refer to him as Britain's Porkie-in-Chief?