The allegation was made in the House of Commons, under the cloak of parliamentary privilege, by two left-wing Labour MPs. There have been suspicions voiced that Brian Sedgemore and George Galloway may have been aided and abetted by The Guardian, for the reason that it was keen to get the name of Dominic Lawson into the public arena without having to run the risk of a possible legal action.
Everyone denies everything. The Guardian denies that it set up the 41- year-old editor of The Sunday Telegraph, as do both the MPs. Lawson and the Foreign Office deny that he was an MI6 "agent". Cynics are retorting, "Well, they would, wouldn't they?" and the mud will stick.
Tomlinson is an amenable character who will talk to any journalist who visits Geneva or calls him on the telephone. Last year he was jailed for 12 months, under the Official Secrets Act, after attempting to publish his MI6 memoirs. British government law officers have pursued Mr Tomlinson across the world. After being hounded out of France and New Zealand he took refuge in Geneva. The Swiss are less susceptible to pressure from Britain for extradition.
Two months ago, Tomlinson was visited at his hotel by Mark Watts, the chief news reporter of Sunday Business. The results of their conversation appeared in an article on 11 October 1998 which opened with the line, "The name is Bond, James Bond - licensed to make a killing for UK plc". The article alleged that a national newspaper editor had been recruited as a paid agent. Tomlinson had told him: "This was the most outstanding success of I-OPS or `Information Operations', an MI6 unit that cultivates `friendly' journalists and editors." The article did not name the editor.
The story raised eyebrows at MI6. First, the article breached a long- standing court injunction that British newspapers are not to publish any comments by Tomlinson detailing MI6 operations. Secondly, the new information appeared to contain new breaches of the Official Secrets Act. The Ministry of Defence Police were assigned to investigate. Last week, they visited Sunday Business and interviewed the editor, Jeff Randall. They seemed very interested in the story about the editor.
Last Saturday, Michael Evans of The Times wrote a story revealing the MoD police inquiry. Since then, speculation over the editor's identity has been rife in the media. He could have provided journalistic cover for MI6 officers and placed stories for MI6 in his publication. The Sunday Times followed with a lighter piece, quoting various editors who denied it was them. Mr Lawson said he would speak only to the paper's editor.
Jeff Randall, the editor of Sunday Business, said last night: "In the course of the interview, he mentioned that MI6 had recruited a British newspaper editor. That set the hares running."
Randall decided not pursue the story. "It was possible that Tomlinson's allegations were untrue. And even if they were true, the person concerned - and MI6 - would deny it."
THE NAME of Dominic Lawson, editor of The Sunday Telegraph, was beginning to reverberate around journalistic circles last weekend. It was rumoured that Tomlinson had named him, and that he had been recruited while he was editor of the weekly magazine, The Spectator. Lawson has an impeccable Establishment pedigree. Son of the former Tory chancellor, he was educated at Eton and Westminster, where he was a keen games player. He went on to Christ Church, Oxford, and then worked for The World Tonight and the Financial Times. In 1987 he went to The Spectator (where his father, Nigel Lawson, had been editor in 1965) as Charles Moore's deputy, and became editor himself in 1990.
Conrad Black made him editor of The Sunday Telegraph in 1995, after the Cold War had ended. But the patterns of ideological strife remain locked in the years of permafrost. Conservative publications still point fingers at left-wing journalists for being too close to the foreign intelligence services.
In December 1994, under Lawson's editorship, The Spectator alleged that Richard Gott, a long-standing Guardian journalist and then the paper's literary editor, had been a paid agent of the KGB, had met KGB agents and had accepted airline flights from the Soviet intelligence organisation. In 1997 it was revealed by another renegade officer, David Shayler, that MI5 had investigated The Guardian's now foreign editor, Victoria Brittain, after she had allowed Kojo Tsikata, head of the Ghanaian security forces, to channel Libyan funds for a libel suit against The Independent through her personal bank account in London. Again The Spectator (now edited by Frank Johnson) took up cudgels - its media columnist, Stephen Glover, became Brittain's most vocal and probing critic.
It would be stretching a point to say that the paper's interest in raising allegations about Mr Lawson was revenge for the pain he had inflicted on them over the Gott affair. Nevertheless, Lawson's name in the MI6 frame was greeted with relish at The Guardian. After all, he had used the Gott story to inflict maximum grief on the paper. At the time, he denied that the story had been inspired by either the Conservative Party or Jonathan Aitken. In an editorial, Lawson said he had published the allegations because Mr Gott had abused the trust readers placed in him as an eminent journalist. The Spectator acknowledged that Gott had committed no offence in meeting KGB agents and his actions raised no issue of national security.
Although Lawson's name was in wide circulation among media people, there was a problem. Given Britain's Draconian libel laws, how could the allegations get into the public domain? This was solved by two MPs who, protected by parliamentary privilege, named Lawson in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
The first, the Labour MP Brian Sedgemore (Hackney South and Shoreditch), raised the name during a debate on the Freedom of Information Act. In a carefully phrased statement, Sedgemore said: "I would hope we would have some time between now and Christmas to look at the claim that Dominic Lawson, the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, has been recruited as a paid MI6 agent. That seems a very odd thing. It would be very damaging for the press if it were true. It's an allegation being made by Mr Richard Tomlinson. I've no idea whether it is true, but it surely is something we should look at."
George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin), was the second Labour MP to name Lawson. He put down an Early Day Motion and several questions. This gave the press the opportunity to print the story. The Guardian then went more heavily on the front page, and on an inside page.
The question arises whether Sedgemore and Galloway had been put up to naming Dominic Lawson using parliamentary privilege. Sedgemore denied this to The Independent, and Galloway said last night: "My source is much closer to MI6 than Farringdon Road [where The Guardian is based]. This is a source I trust, who named Lawson."
However, the problem that is raised by such allegations is that they are very difficult to prove.
In the intelligence world, the slipperiness of language is the key to sustaining relationships.
The phrasing of Sedgemore's question included the word "agent", which Mr Lawson echoed, commenting that he was not an "agent, paid or unpaid, for MI6". His wife has said it is ludicrous to suggest that he is "a spy" (a word secret services only use to refer to the other side). The more probing question to ask anyone accused of being in bed with security services is: "What is the nature of your involvement, and have you received either payment or benefits in return?"
The Foreign Office took the unusual step of issuing a categorical statement that MI6 "would never recruit an editor". Again, we must ask what the words really mean.These people are the original spin doctors. To say that a service would not "recruit" someone is not the same as saying that they would not have an intelligence relationship with them.
Lawson will doubtless clarify all this of his own accord. But the more general question, raised by all cases of alleged involvement by journalists with the intelligence services, is how far it is acceptable to cultivate a relationship. Many journalists have got good stories - or been able to substantiate them - by talking to the security services. The conundrum is what to do when they ask for favours in return. Articles published in The Spectator about Bosnia, under the byline Kenneth Roberts, are now alleged to have been the work of an MI6 officer. Lawson denies knowledge of this.
Yet it was odd that a man headlined as "working with UN forces in Bosnia", and with such a sharpened axe to grind against the direction of British media coverage of the Bosnian Serbs, should have been so reluctant to reveal his identity, or that Lawson would not have suspected secret service involvement.
There is rarely an excuse for false bylines. Readers have the right to expect that authors are who they say they are. But a certain playfulness surrounded the Lawson Spectator. At its best, it produced scoops like the revelation of Nicholas Ridley's post-prandial anti-German outburst. At its worst, it allowed journalists to settle scores anonymously, as when a piece under the byline Veronica Lodge defended the convicted fraudster, Darius Guppy. It was in fact by foreign editor Anne Applebaum. It seemed an unnecessary device, simply to defend a friend.
Certainly, MI6 has been intent on courting the media to put across its own version of events. They did not favour continued involvement in the Bosnian crisis and were anxious that television news, in particular, was becoming too anti-Serb and thus encouraging politicians to support British engagement.
But the "squirrels" - as MI6 calls its clan - also had problems closer to home. Shocked by the threats of the renegade Tomlinson, the service's new boss, David Spedding, authorised in 1995 for the first time a limited release of information about the case, intended to counter Tomlinson's allegations.
Although the official line was (and remains) that neither MI6 nor its domestic counterpart, MI5, talk to the press, Spedding embarked on a round of amiable lunches with senior journalists, opening channels of communication.
This half-way house, in which MI6 uses the press to influence opinion while failing to openly acknowledge that they are doing so, raises some worrying questions about what we read and watch.