Magazine article The Spectator

Why I Believe Ms Brittain Was More Than a Mere Postbox

Magazine article The Spectator

Why I Believe Ms Brittain Was More Than a Mere Postbox

Article excerpt

Last Friday the Guardian appointed an ombudsman, John Willis, who will look into the Victoria Brittain affair. Mr Willis, until recently director of programmes for Channel 4, is an investigative reporter by trade. He should be well suited to cut his way through the complexities of this case.

Some may say Mr Willis can't be depended on to come up with an independent judgment. His salary, after all, is paid by the Guardian. Its editor, Alan Rusbridger, appointed him and can presumably dismiss him. Having him on the inquiry is a bit like asking the chief constable of one police force to look into allegations of brutality in a neighbouring one. In such a case the Guardian would tut-tut about the police washing their own dirty linen.

However, we should at this stage give Mr Willis the benefit of the doubt. A Guardian nabob was quoted to me the other day as saying that whatever Ms Brittain may or may not have done, the newspaper's reputation must be protected at all costs. I hope Mr Willis's sense of professional pride will be provoked by such expectations. It may be that this column will be of some use to him as he sets about his task.

Last week Ms Brittain wrote to this magazine in response to my article about her the previous week. It is a long, swirling letter, full of insults against me which I shall not bother to answer for fear of wearying the reader. She goes down several interesting, but not strictly relevant paths, and skates around some inconvenient facts. None of this matters very much. What is much more significant is her reluctance (or inability) in a letter of over 800 words to address, in any detail, the central charges against her.

I should summarise the facts as they seem to have been accepted by all parties. Over a period of some 16 months (October 1993 to February 1995) some 250,000 was paid into Ms Brittain's Abbey National bank accounts on behalf of her close personal friend Kojo Tsikata. We know this as a result of the revelations to the Mail on Sunday of a disgruntled MIS operative called David Shayler. We also know that most of the money paid into her accounts came from Libyan sources. Its provenance alerted MIS, who believed Ms Brittain to be sympathetic to the Libyan regime and knew that Mr Tsikata, a very senior Ghanaian politician, is one of its closest friends.

In fact these funds were destined to pay for a libel action which Mr Tsikata had mounted against the Independent. Ms Brittain has told her editor, Mr Rusbridger, that she had no idea that most of the money was Libyan, and has produced her bank statements which are said to make no reference to Libyan sources. According to her version, as relayed to me by Mr Rusbridger, she was in effect acting as a postbox. She claims to have played no active role in Mr Tsikata's libel action against a rival newspaper.

In my previous two articles I found Ms Brittain's account of herself incredible. These are the main charges against her, which her letter failed to address, and which Mr Willis should consider:

(1) Ms Brittain says she did not know that the money paid into her accounts on Mr Tsikata's behalf came from Libyan sources. But she must have realised that her friend could not have earned these huge amounts of money in his official capacity. His annual salary as head of government security in Ghana was some 4,000. A Guardian spokesman told the Daily Telegraph that `she had no idea how much he earned'. …

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