Leading Article: This is no conspiracy. It's good journalism

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THE TIMES and the Labour MP, Peter Bradley, should be congratulated for the questions they have pursued over Michael Ashcroft. Certainly they should not be the subject of the charges of collusion and the veiled allegations of malevolence suggested by the Tory Central Office.

The Times has not been alone in raising doubts about the Tory Party treasurer's source of wealth. The Independent and other newspapers have also been posing questions about Michael Ashcroft ever since he was appointed by William Hague last year. Now, through the application of standard journalistic practice, the noise surrounding Mr Ashcroft has reached a climax.

Of course Mr Ashcroft feels that he is being hounded. Anyone under intense financial scrutiny does, especially businessmen who are unused to such persistence. And of course politicians of any hue will point to conspiracy theories as the source of their troubles, and "muck-raking journalists" as the instruments of their pain.

There is nothing unusual, or shameful, about a newspaper sharing information and co-operating with backbenchers in its investigations. Tory backbenchers know this as much as Labour ones. The Times might have been wiser to admit openly its co-operation with Peter Bradley. But it has nothing to apologise for.

All the protestations about a press conspiracy should not divert anyone from the simple issues that are at stake here. Mr Ashcroft sought the position of party treasurer of his own accord, presumably as a means of entering public life. He has to accept that the price of public life, and the influence that goes with it, is press scrutiny; this is all the greater the more hidden are the answers to the questions sought.

Mr Hague appointed Mr Ashcroft because the party needed his money. He, too, must accept that there are obvious doubts about association with a man whose wealth is hidden in companies registered in tax havens such as Belize. Where money and politics mix, then only total transparency will stop the press sending its reporters to sniff out the facts, however they can find them.