Monitor: Ashcroft libel settlement
All the News of the World
Saturday 11 December 1999
THE TIMES is pleased to confirm that it has no evidence that Mr Ashcroft or any of his companies have ever been suspects of money laundering or drug-related crimes. Mr Ashcroft has told The Times that he recognises the public concern about foreign funding of British politics, and that he intends to reorganise his affairs in order to return to live in Britain. The Times applauds this. The openness and accountability of political funding by all parties will remain a central issue for investigation and comment. With this statement, The Times intends to draw a line under The Ashcroft Affair.
THE SETTLEMENT of Michael Ashcroft's libel action against The Times cannot have been entirely pleasing to either side, but it must have come as a relief to the Conservatives. They can now keep their treasurer and (presumably) his contributions, without having to worry about a case that would have been an unwelcome distraction during the run-up to the next election. The result is inconclusive. It should lead all political parties to try to make their funding more diverse. Unfortunately, knowing the age we live in, politicians of all parties are more likely to demand that they be paid for by the taxpayer. Provided it is open and transparent, private funding for politics - domestic foreign, small or large - is infinitely preferable to that.
THE TIMES has done a deal with Michael Ashcroft, the Tory treasurer. It has agreed to settle the libel case he launched against the paper because there was no evidence to support some allegations. But it is still not right for Mr Ashcroft to be in the position he holds. And we are not scared to go on saying so. We promise to go on investigating and criticising this Belize-based billionaire without whom the Conservative Party would go bust.
PUBLIC EXPOSURE of the fact that the Conservative Party's treasurer chooses to conduct his affairs from Belize, by any reckoning a bizarre choice of financial homestead, has done the party little good. It may be wholly legal, but it certainly looks tacky, for a major British party to be heavily funded by remittances from Central America. Today's deal may not represent a ringing triumph for The Times, but nor does it go far to undo the damage inflicted upon Mr Ashcroft and the Conservative Party by the paper's campaign against its Treasurer. The Tories can console themselves with the fact that they no longer face a long drawn-out public embarrassment, while Mr Ashcroft fights his corner in court. But the party's image has gained nothing from the saga.
ASHCROFT VS Stothard would have been a fitting sequel to the historical sagas of Aitken, Archer and Hamilton, which have done such good business in Court 13. But the public disappointment that the show is herewith cancelled is as nothing to the relief experienced by William Hague. The Times has accepted that Mr Ashcroft had no dealings in drugs or money laundering. Mr Ashcroft has offered to return to live in this country and to pay taxes - and has accepted that it is legitimate for newspapers to investigate such stories. Of course it is. You would think that by now we would have the sort of libel laws which would protect and even encourage editors who want to publish this sort of reporting. Alas, we don't. Rich bullying plaintiffs - whether or not they perjure themselves along the road - will still find comfort in the courts. Why else would they keep on trying? Perhaps judges could keep in mind the Triple A Alliance of Archer, Aitken and Ashcroft as they build case law.
IF THE Tories really are "delighted" that party treasurer Michael Ashcroft has settled libel action against The Times - without a word of apology being offered by that newspaper - then they must have taken leave of their senses. This development does them no good at all. Given the wretched record of sleaze in the Major years and the Jeffrey Archer fiasco, the Tories simply cannot afford another embarrassment. They will never regain public trust unless they can present themselves as squeaky clean. But since the questions raised about Mr Ashcroft will not now be answered in a court of law, the voters - fairly or not - may conclude that the Tories haven't really changed. For the sake of the party which he so very generously supported, he should resign.
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