Leading Article: An inglorious episode for the press and politicans alike

THE DECISION by The Times and Michael Ashcroft, the Conservative Party Treasurer, to reach an out-of-court settlement is a matter of some regret. And this is not simply because we were all looking forward to a courtroom scrap between two such titanic forces of conservatism, with a settlement running into many millions of pounds possible (though it would certainly have made great theatre, with Neil Hamilton's libel case against Mohamed Al Fayed a mere warm-up routine).

The epic battle was not to be. The protagonists' motives are not difficult to discern. Mr Ashcroft must have been made aware by his party's leadership that the spectacle of the party Treasurer's having to defend his reputation against suggestions, however ill-founded, that he was suspected of being in some way involved in drugs-related crimes was not exactly the best springboard for the Tories' next election campaign. Equally, the loss of millions of pounds plus the humiliation of an apology was something that even a man as wealthy as Mr Murdoch must have found an unpalatable prospect. Unsurprisingly, it looks as though this deal was brokered at the highest levels of News International and the Conservative Party, and for the lowest of expedient motives.

But the Times-Ashcroft settlement has consequences far beyond simply depriving the nation of a little entertainment.

Firstly, if any of Mr Murdoch's papers, most particularly The Times, were to return to their old allegiance and urge support for the Conservatives, such a move would be tainted by the deal that has just been done. Mr Murdoch's Euroscepticism is well chronicled. But the debt of gratitude that he owes to this settlement, one that spared him so much embarrassment and potential monetary loss, is plain to see and weakens the credibility of his papers.

Secondly, and related to that, is the price that Mr Murdoch's papers may have paid in terms of their freedom to investigate and report the affairs of the Tory party. The Times has said it "intends to draw a line under the Ashcroft Affair". That sounds an innocuous enough idea, ending unpleasantness between erstwhile friends. But it is in fact a much more sinister affair, leaving open the possibility that The Times and its sister papers may "go easy" on the Tories. This has not been a glorious episode for The Times or the Tories; it has harmed free investigative journalism and it has further tainted Mr Murdoch's stewardship of that over-large slice of the media he controls. No one can or should draw a line under that.

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