Magazine article The Spectator

Where Were the Newspapers When the Brave Mrs Filkin Really Needed Them?

Magazine article The Spectator

Where Were the Newspapers When the Brave Mrs Filkin Really Needed Them?

Article excerpt


Elizabeth Filkin's allegations against ministers received huge coverage. Most newspapers have been sorry that the parliamentary commissioner for standards is leaving her job. A few of them got the point which is that, since the government could easily have saved her, it was the government which did her down.

If only Mrs Filkin had received more support when she needed it. Last March Tom Bower's book about Geoffrey Robinson, the multi-millionaire former Labour minister, was serialised in the Daily Mail. I remarked at the time that, the Mail and the Daily Telegraph aside, most newspapers took Mr Bower's main charge against Mr Robinson remarkably lightly. Mr Bower produced seemingly incontrovertible evidence that Mr Robinson had solicited, and been paid, a cheque for 200,000 by the late, disgraced tycoon, Robert Maxwell. The point was not that Mr Robinson had had no right to the payment. It was that he had always insisted he had never received it.

Mrs Filkin took up Mr Bower's allegation, and found `compelling evidence' that a cheque for 200,000 had been paid. In early May the Labour-dominated standards and privileges committee censured Mr Robinson for failing to be frank about the money or registering it, but gave him three months (i.e. until after the election) to prove he had not received the cheque. You would have thought that such indulgence would have been enough to light the touchpaper in Fleet Street, but no. The Mail, Telegraph and Independent were very cross, but the Guardian and Financial Times kept their counsel.

In October - after rather more than three months had passed - Mr Robinson finally admitted that he could find no evidence to prove he had never received the money. Even so, he defiantly reasserted his claim that he had never been paid the cheque for 200,000 by Mr Maxwell more than a decade ago. The standards and privileges committee feebly suspended Mr Robinson from the House of Commons for three weeks. Three weeks! Now surely Fleet Street would at last gird its loins. Alas, it did not. Only the Mail and the Telegraph reiterated their familiar complaints.

Mr Robinson had been caught out lying in the fourth sleaze investigation in which he has been involved. He is not an obscure MP but a former paymaster-general, who famously lent Peter Mandelson 373,000 to help him buy a house he could not afford. The importance of his role in New Labour could hardly be exaggerated. Mr Robinson helped fund the offices of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were in opposition. He twice put his Tuscan villa at the disposal of the Prime Minister, and also lent the Chancellor his flat in Cannes, besides making his Park Lane apartment available to him. Mr Blair has described Mr Robinson - who remains the proprietor of the New Statesman magazine - as a `high-- calibre businessman and a brilliant minister' who did `everything by the rules'. Some rules.

If Mr Robinson had been a Tory, he would have been pulled limb from limb by the press for much less. I search in vain among New Labour columnists to find even a little gentle chiding of the man. Nothing from the admirable Donald Macintyre of the Independent. Not a word from the tireless Peter Riddell of the Times, other than a dig at `lazy journalism' that puts Labour sleaze on a par with what the Tories got up to. No peep from the Olympian Philip Stephens of the Financial Times, who even last Friday, while regretting the departure of Mrs Filkin, thought charges of corruption against New Labour `too harsh'. …

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