Magazine article The Spectator

The Message of Martin Bell's Fate: Don't Mess with New Labour

Magazine article The Spectator

The Message of Martin Bell's Fate: Don't Mess with New Labour

Article excerpt

Kelvin MacKenzie, who has been running Mirror Group's newspapers for little more than a week, appears to have wrought amazing changes at the Mirror. He has galvanised his old protege, Piers Morgan, the paper's editor. Almost every day brings a new scoop.

It was the Mirror which broke the story about Martin Bell, revealing that the Independent MP had omitted to declare a 9,389 bill for legal expenses which had been footed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The Mirror was first off the block with a story about cash flow problems in Sir Elton John's companies. It was also first to interview Anne Bullen, the secretary fired by Robin Cook, who alleges that the plan, later abandoned, was to give her job to Mr Cook's mistress, Gaynor Regan.

All very hot stories presented in a dramatic way carrying Mr MacKenzie's imprimatur. With the paper's sales sinking, Mr MacKenzie has gone with the oldfashioned idea that good stories sell newspapers. Let's hope he's right. The Mirror has spent the last 20 years as a poor imitation of the Sun, during which time it has lost half its sales. How glorious it would be if MacKenzie, a former editor of the Sun, helped the Mirror find a new identity.

One story reflected no discredit on the Mirror but a great deal on the source that provided it. I mean the piece about Martin Bell. It was extremely detailed and correct in almost every respect. The solicitors Nicolson, Graham and Jones had advised that Mr Bell should stand in Tatton as an Independent rather than an `anti-sleaze' candidate on the basis that his opponent, Neil Hamilton, had not been convicted of any offence. The bill for this word of caution was 8,000 plus VAT, rather steep, I would have thought. It was met by Labour and the Lib-Dems, and not declared by Mr Bell.

How did the Mirror obtain this story? A careful reading provides no clue. Sources are not even hinted at. We can be pretty sure that Nicolson, Graham and Jones had no wish to advertise how much they can charge for what would seem a pretty straightforward piece of advice. The LibDems had no cause to embarrass Mr Bell, whom they find a sympathetic, if somewhat ineffectual, colleague. Only Labour had a motive, and it seems certain that Labour dished poor Mr Bell.

He had made the mistake of annoying the party's apparatchiks. During the brouhaha over Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One boss who had donated 1 million to the Labour party, Mr Bell rose to his feet in the Commons and asked Mr Blair what was deemed a rather embarrassing, as well as impertinent, question. `Doesn't the appearance of wrongdoing do almost as much damage as the wrongdoing itself?' It was the only time that Mr Bell has made his mark as an MP. If we think back, it is Mr Bell's sepulchral stare, rather than any Tory criticisms, that lodge in the mind.

Mr Blair's abrasive press secretary, Alastair 'Bruiser' Campbell, rarely forgets a slight. There is a school of thought which believes that after a suitable period of time had elapsed he decided to pay back Mr Bell by telling a Mirror reporter, Will Woodward, about the legal bill. The disclosure would do very little, if any, damage to Labour, since it was already known that the party's candidate had stood aside for Mr Bell and its part-payment of the legal bill was consonant with that, but it would deal Mr Bell's image a heavy blow.

On Monday Mr Campbell telephoned Mr Bell to deny suggestions that Labour had leaked the story to the Mirror. …

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