Magazine article The Spectator

Peter Storhard Is Elevated above Humanity by the Rest of the Press

Magazine article The Spectator

Peter Storhard Is Elevated above Humanity by the Rest of the Press

Article excerpt

My admiration for my old friend Peter Stothard, editor of the Times, has soared to new heights. No one can doubt that he has landed a heavy punch on Michael Ashcroft and sent him reeling, along with William Hague and Michael Ancram and sundry other members of the Tory party. When you consider that Mr Stothard is a mere newspaper editor, his achievement seems pretty extraordinary. It appears utterly epic, given that the story, which had this devastating effect was almost completely bogus.

The Times blew up because Mr Ashcroft, treasurer of the Tory party, has donated several million pounds to party funds while living in Belize. The size of these donations was not new. The fresh element, so far as my old friend was concerned, was that the money had been 'channelled... through a secretive trust based in Belize'. According to the Times, this called into question Mr Hague's commitment not to accept foreign gifts to the party. Whereas Mr Ancram maintained that Mr Ashcroft was as British as the white cliffs of Dover, Mr Stothard asserted that he was not even registered as an overseas voter. It turned out that he is, though only since February. More interestingly, it transpired that Mr Ashcroft was not uniquely sinful since five wealthy people who also happen to live abroad have given money to the Labour party. One chap by the name of Robert Earl, resident in Orlando, Florida, since the 1970s, gave f I million to Labour in 1997. Another was a New Zealander, resident in Ireland. The Times, however, was not interested in these disclosures, of which I could find no mention in its pages. By this time the paper had worked up the rest of the press into a terrific lather over Mr Ashcroft, and the BBC was wondering why he had not resigned.

Mr Stothard showed quite breathtaking ruthlessness, worthy of a top-class politician. When I recall the kaftan-clad, poetic youth whom I knew 25 years ago, wandering alone on the banks of the Cherwell, a much-thumbed copy of the Aeneid clasped firmly in his hand, I am amazed that he should not only be prepared to take on a man like Ashcroft but also knock him out of the ring. Mr Ashcroft, it will be remembered, is suing Mr Stothard and the Times's deputy political editor, Tom Baldwin, for having allegedly linked him with drugs-related crime. In similar circumstances many editors would lie low, but not my old friend. During the recent Tory party conference he wrote a long piece asking the faithful to dump Mr Ashcroft advice which they ignored. And now, much more devastatingly, he has re-spun an old story which a credulous press, its appetite for sleaze already reawakened by the Archer affair, has gratefully lapped up.

My purpose here is not to weigh the rights and wrongs of Mr Ashcroft. Still less is it to criticise Mr Stothard. It is simply to note that the true nature of the affair was nowhere explained in the media. To read the newspapers you would think that the editor of the Times was a disembodied presence pursuing the cause of truth and justice in a wholly disinterested way. In reality he is a man whose job and reputation might be at risk if the Times were forced to pay millions of pounds to Mr Ashcroft. If Mr Stothard had been a politician or even a businessman, as Mr Ashcroft is, other newspapers would have set the Times's allegations in the context of a personal duel between the two men. They would have described how in a very daring way Mr Stothard was using the Times to advance his own interests and do down his enemy before they eventually meet in the Royal Courts of Justice. …

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