Magazine article The Spectator

Owner of Top People's Store Says Home Secretary Took Bribe! No Story

Magazine article The Spectator

Owner of Top People's Store Says Home Secretary Took Bribe! No Story

Article excerpt

Last Friday the serious newspapers cartied a sensational news story. `Howard cleared over 1 million bribe allegations' ran the headline in the Guardian. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, had been cleared in a parliamentary report of allegations made by Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, that he had pocketed up to 1 million in bribes. According to Mr Al Fayed, Mr Howard had taken the money as a junior minister in 1987 from Tiny Rowland, the chief executive of Lonrho, in return for setting up a Department of Trade report into the acquisition of Harrods two years earlier by Mr Al Fayed and his brother.

Such a charge is almost unprecedented. A million pounds! The Home Secretary! But newspapers reported the matter in a surprisingly brief and deadpan way. Only the Daily Telegraph carried the story on its front page, and even so it was rather buried at the bottom. An account in the Times, barely 250 words long, was tucked away on page ten. Two days later the Sunday broadsheets, which might have been expected to investigate the background of this amazing tale, almost ignored it. The Scotsman has so far been the only newspaper to take it very seriously.

What is going on? It is not as if the allegations that Mr Howard took bribes were wearily familiar to readers. No very specific mention of them had appeared in the press until last Friday. On 15 December 1996 the investigative reporter David Leigh wrote a piece in the Observer which suggested that Mr Al Fayed's `real target' in his anti-sleaze campaign was Mr Howard, but he felt too constrained to go into any detail. Then last Thursday Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, publishes his privileged report blowing the whole affair wide open, and the next day the newspapers fail to work up much enthusiasm.

A few of them may regard Mr Al Fayed as being a couple of apples short of a picnic, and so unworthy of serious attention. But the Guardian and Observer have given a great deal of credence to his much less damaging allegations against the Tory MP Neil Hamilton and the former Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken. So why did they show so little interest in these far more sensational ones? My best guess is that they, like other newspapers, regard this as a dead story. `Minister comprehensively cleared' is not news in the same way as `Minister took bribes'. But if they believe that Sir Gordon's report is the end of the affair, they may be much mistaken.

Mr Al Fayed told me earlier this week that he is considering sending several thousand copies of a press release to Mr Howard's Folkestone and Hythe constituents criticising aspects of the Downey report. The point is that the affair is now public, and Sir Gordon Downey has made it so, though his purpose was unequivocally to exonerate Mr Howard. Mr Al Fayed may not like the report, but he is clearly happy that it has put the matter into the public arena. He says that he will now try to obtain a judicial review. His greatest hope, he told me, is that Mr Howard will feel obliged to sue him. Mr Al Fayed craves a public fight.

The 'evidence' which Mr Al Fayed produced against Mr Howard - and which was painstakingly considered by Sir Gordon - is unimpressive. It relies entirely on one man, Tiny Rowland. Until 1993 Mr Al Fayed and Mr Rowland were bitter enemies. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.