15 JUNE 2002, Page 15

I should say at this point that I have never

met or talked to Black Rod or, so far as I am aware, any members of his office. There are menacing signs that Greenslade — whether operating on his own behalf or at the instigation of others it is hard to tell — is beginning to sniff round Black Rod. Greenslade is already hinting that he was the source of our story; he wasn't, But once the PCC complaint landed, Black Rod behaved in a way that many might be excused for thinking had gone out of fashion in public life: he insisted on telling the truth.

It can only be assumed that Downing Street was banking on being able to suppress or nobble Black Rod, as so many other men and women have been nobbled in the last five years. For him it would have been the easier route: to have stood behind the mendacious Downing Street account of events and to have allowed truth to be damned as lies. But Black Rod declined to adopt this course of action. Instead he produced a long, detailed and scrupulously documented memorandum that revealed the full details of how Downing Street tried to establish a bigger role for the Prime Minister. I am told that he showed it to members of his office to make sure they felt his account was fair. He then submitted it in draft form to the FCC, though making it quite clear that he would not change it in any way. The document did not merely prove that our story was true: it went very much further. It contained a number of highly embarrassing revelations. It showed that, if anything, The Spectator and the Mail on Sunday had understated the amount of pressure applied by Downing Street. One person aware of the contents of this killer memo describes it as 'dynamite'.

The memo was certainly seen by the PCC — though the commission persisted in denying to the editors involved that any evidence had been received. Its contents were, at the very least, communicated to Downing Street, for from the moment of Black Rod's submission everything changed. Downing Street suddenly knew that it faced a choice between the story coming out, though in a far more technicolour and dramatic way than anyone had up to that stage realised, or beating a hasty retreat.

What followed was perhaps the most squalid period of this discreditable episode as Downing Street manoeuvred to get out of trouble, It was aided by the PCC, which found itself in a difficult situation. It now knew that the only adjudication possible was against No. 10. But it also knew that this was impossible. After all, its reason for existence is to sort out rows between Fleet Street and No. 10, and over its head has always stood the implicit threat of statutory regulation. The PCC went to extraordinary lengths to get a deal. There was talk of making Black Rod's evidence inadmissible. But all the publications stood firm. In the end Downing Street had no choice but to withdraw.

Downing Street and the FCC, for their different reasons, were eager to make sure that this was not how the outcome was presented. They seem to have resolved on an exchange of letters which gave almost as tendentious an account of events as Downing Street's original complaint.

First, the PCC asserted that 'it seems that none of the three publications concerned has produced evidence in their defence that the Prime Minister himself was in any way involved. '. This was not surprising because none of the papers had claimed that he was. All agreed that officials acting on behalf of Tony Blair had exerted the pressure. Second, the PCC wrote that 'the PCC will never be in a position to ascertain the facts and this issue will remain a matter largely of interpretation'. This was disingenuous because it passed over the fact that Black Rod's very powerful testimony would have been produced had Downing Street pressed its case. Third, the PCC said that the matter had been 'resolved', So it had been: but only between the PCC and No. 10. None of the three papers was consulted about the settlement.

This account of events was enough for Downing Street to claim victory, or at the very least a score draw. That was how matters were presented when the settlement was leaked on Tuesday, through the medium of Greenslade of the Guardian. And it might have held up but for the fact that, late that evening, a rare statement was issued from the House of Lords: 'Black Rod discussed the request with the PCC, but in the event No. 10 withdrew the complaint and therefore, as far as Black Rod is concerned, the matter is now closed.'

According to the BBC, private briefing that accompanied this statement suggested that Black Rod's testimony, had it seen the light of day, would have been 'unfavourable'. By close of play on Tuesday night. Downing Street's second attempt to suppress the truth was in tatters. Meanwhile, that killer memo lurks in a safe somewhere: Downing Street must be praying that it never sees the light of day.

It is not known what, if anything, General Sir Michael Willcocks, KGB, thinks of post-modernism. But his behaviour recalls that of Doctor Johnson who, when confronted by Bishop Berkeley's argument for the non-existence of matter, strode over to a large stone and, so Boswell tells us, 'kicked it till he rebounded from it', declaring: 'I refute it thus.. OUR parliamentary representatives are a sensitive lot. Upset by the low turnout in his Harrow West constituency at the last election, Labour MP Gareth Thomas has come up with a brilliant wheeze: to ban apathy. He has tabled a private member's Bill which would compel us all to visit the polling station on election day and register a mark on a ballot paper under the pain of a £50 fine.

It is true that several genuine democracies, such as Australia, have compulsory voting, but the concept is more generally associated with autocratic regimes whose leaders have an emotional need to feel wanted by their huddled masses. The only effect of compulsory voting in this country would be similarly to boost the egos of politicians and to excuse them from having to worry about why their manifestos have failed to inspire a majority of those registered to vote.

What is the problem with apathy, in any case? Perhaps those who have decided not to vote do so for good reason: they do not feel sufficiently versed in current affairs to make an informed choice and are quite happy to leave the decision of who governs them to those who do understand the issues involved.

If any action is required, it is against those who fail to vote, and then moan incessantly about those who are elected. But in their case a fine is inappropriate: why not give government departments and local authorities the right to consign to the waste-paper basket any letter of complaint received from a citizen who failed to vote at the most recent relevant election?

If there is a case for hitting pockets, it is those of the candidates that should be hit. Why not make an MP's salary proportional to the percentage turnout in his constituency? For example, Gareth Thomas, whose constituency had a turnout of 63.4 per cent in the last election, would receive 63.4 per cent of an MP's full salary of £55,118 — i.e. £35,275. That would give our leaders an incentive not to put out boring

manifestos. Ross Clark