31 DECEMBER 1994, Page 18


How can the Guardian become a paper of truth and honour again?


When a newspaper ceases just to report and comment on the news and becomes a news story itself, both it and its editor are in trouble. That is exactly what has happened to the Guardian and Peter Preston. In the interests of this once distin- guished paper, its gifted staff and its much- abused readers, it is vital that the trouble be cleared up as early as possible in 1995. That can only be done, in the first instance, by the departure of Preston and the instal- lation of a new and unblemished regime.

The trouble began when the paper, and Preston personally, launched their witch- hunt against certain ministers for improp- erly accepting hospitality. The career of one junior minister was ruined, in my view quite unjustly — but that is another story. A cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken, was also threatened with ruin when he became the chief target of the Guardian's cam- paign. Having known Aitken for many years as a rich, generous man, often in scrapes but fundamentally honest and hon- ourable, I was sure the campaign was mis- conceived. My suspicions deepened when it became clear that Preston, in waging it, had fallen into the clutches of Mohamed Fayed.

Preston's story about Aitken was not the result, as the Guardian claimed, of a bril- liant piece of 'investigative journalism'. Mr Fayed, who abused his position as owner of the Paris Ritz to obtain the details of Aitken's bill at the hotel, had originally offered his story to the Times, which had turned it down, being unwilling to abide by Mr Fayed's terms. The Guardian was less squeamish. In due course Preston found himself purloining a copy of Aitken's Com- mons writing-paper, forging a letter from him and forging the signature of his Private Secretary — all to comply with Mr Fayed's demands. Forgery is a serious offence, and particularly heinous in the case of a news- paper editor, who is expected to have a scrupulous regard for the truth at all times. Preston's attempt to laugh off his forgery as a 'cod fax' reminds one of the Watergate burglars, who originally referred to the break-in as a 'caper'. The forgery was and remains a crime.

Preston's accusations of improper hospi- tality were in any event humbug since the Guardian is a notorious indulger in free- bies. It appears, unlike the House of Com- mons, to have no house rules about accept- ing them and keeps no record of their value and provenance, even for its own purposes,

let alone for public inspection. Journalists are no more, and no less, likely than MPs and ministers to be influenced by the munificence of their hosts. The humbug element became sharper when it emerged that Preston himself had received £1,000 or so of hospitality from Barclays Bank at Wimbledon and a trip to Paris worth even more from Trust House Forte. One won- ders how many other freebies he has accepted, and in particular how much he may have been prepared to receive from his new friend Mr Fayed, the owner of Har- rods and much else as well as the Paris Ritz.

Preston's already delicate position was abruptly transformed by The Spectator's revelation that Richard Gott, his long-time confidant and senior colleague, had worked for the KGB — the Guardian reacted to it by accusing The Spectator of a 'sleazy' intrigue with Aitken and the British securi- ty services. Let us nail this falsehood — I am tempted to call it a deliberate lie once and for all. I wrote two articles about the Guardian and Aitken in 1994. Before writing them I had no communication with the editor of The Spectator, merely faxing them to him in my usual way. Indeed, I did not even consult Aitken, who was agreeably surprised to find me coming to his aid. I knew nothing whatever about the Palmer- Spectator investigation into Gott, which had begun long before the Guardian launched its campaign against Aitken — who in any event has no connection with The Spectator. I doubt if Aitken has had any dealing with the security services either, since they did their best to get him jailed in 1970.

When Gott's treachery was revealed, Preston as his editor had a perfectly clear and prudent course open to him, which any editor in his senses would have pursued. He should have suspended Gott on full pay while the truth of the accusation was exam-

fined and then, having found it to be justi- fied, sacked him. That would have been the end of the matter. Instead, he reacted in a highly emotional way. He allowed Gott to resign with honour, and published an exchange of letters with him, notable on Gott's side for mendacity and on Preston's for what can only be called heartless frivoli- ty. Since then he has given Gott and his friends and backers carte blanche to wage a noisy damage-limitation exercise in the news, editorial and letters columns of the Guardian, and he has echoed it in his own leaders. The essence of this exercise has been to smear those who brought Gott's treachery to light with any filth which comes to hand. So desperate has the Guardian become that it even invoked the assistance of Christopher Hitchens, a mas- ter of the slick falsehood, and it published, on 19 December, an enormous drawing Of Oleg Gordievsky which I, for one, found viciously anti-Semitic.

So what is now going to happen

to the Guardian and its editor? On the parr, itself there is something approaching a civil war. Some of its journalists back the editor, from self-interest or even conviction. Oth- ers — the hard Left — are furious with himfor allowing Gott to go and for failing to sue The Spectator for libel. The more seri- ous element — and there are such people on the paper — are disgusted with the whole business and want a new editor appointed. But it is here that a difficultY arises, pointing to a fundamental flaw in the way the Guardian is run. Normally in a matter of this kind the newspaper's manag- ing board would call the editor to account and decide if he is still a fit person to run the paper. But in this case Preston hifilsell sack cchairman of the board and unlikely to

khimself. Above the board there is a thing called the Scott Trust, set up to ensure that the its tradition is conducted in accordance with ts tradition and principles. But the chairman of the trust, Hugo Young, is hirnselr employed by Preston, who can raise _or a lower Young's pay, or sack him, t will Young, while continuing to write unctuouS

ly in his column about public probitY, o record as saying that his sole functionis back the editor. All very circular and cosY. There appears to be no obvious way 1.1.ei which the Guardian can be rid of the lingroups

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