3 MAY 1997, Page 30

A nod and a wink

Sir: It has been brought to my notice that you carried an article by Alan Cochrane, `Outed by his aM folk', on 5 April regarding Sir Michael Hirst's resignation as chairman of the Scottish Conservative party.

Although it is written in his customary pedestrian style, what really offend are the inaccuracies and his willingness to repeat unsubstantiated claims laced with innuendo.

He says, twice, that I had claimed Sir Michael was 'the victim of a coup'. I never made any such statement. In fact, the oppo- site is the truth, as every other newspaper has reported. On the fateful Friday of his resignation, Sir Michael was surrounded by senior party colleagues who were, to all intents and purposes, loyal to him. They, however, had been duped into believing a newspaper had a dossier on Sir Michael's `past indiscretion'. They told him 'dollops' of money had been paid to certain individu- als to talk and that the story would break that Sunday. All this was a fantasy, the result of panic and naivety.

Mr Cochrane says my role as Sir Michael's press aide was a 'strange' one. What he means by this he, understandably, fails to explain. What is strange, which seems to have bypassed Mr Cochrane, although not other reporters, is that Sir Michael's pager and mobile phone were switched off on the day of the crucial meet- ing and his home telephone left on the answering machine. Neither I nor Sir Michael's personal assistant was able to reach him.

It was patently obvious to me — as it would have been to any journalist worth his salt making even the most cursory inquiries — that there were to be no revelations and therefore Sir Michael's resignation was unnecessary. And so it proved. After all, his `indiscretion' was in the past, a private mat- ter, and he had committed no crime.

My leaving Central Office was 'by mutual consent', as they themselves have said. One newspaper even reported a spokesman as claiming it was 'amicable'. Mr Cochrane should rely less on what he picks up from the radio and do his own research. Had he talked to all the principals involved, includ- ing me — and he was one of the few jour- nalists who did not — he might have learned more and would not have had to resort to shoddy 'nod-and-wink' journalism, writing that I had gone 'for reasons which if I repeat here will have him reaching for his learned friends'. It would be most unusual if one of those involved had made no attempt to hit back with a smear after being described by me as a dupe. I am certain Mr Cochrane knows what a 'dupe' is.

George Birrell

24 Saxe Coburg Place, Edinburgh

Alan Cochrane writes: Oh dear, and I had tried to be fair to Mr Birrell. In future — if he has one — I shan't bother.