Anti-sleaze candidate Bell claims he is victim of smear campaign

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Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent standing as an anti- sleaze campaigner against the Tory MP Neil Hamilton, yesterday claimed he was himself the victim of a smear campaign.

The affair that broke up his marriage in 1980 was being examined, he said, his friends were being harassed and the story was even being put about that the BBC had withdrawn him from Northern Ireland because he had paid children to throw stones at soldiers - which he dismissed as "a damnable lie".

In a hastily called press conference in Mr Hamilton's Tatton constituency in Cheshire, Mr Bell launched a pre-emptive attack on unnamed "cowards" and "sleaze merchants".

The main target of the campaign, he said, was likely to be the breakup of his marriage in 1980. "There was an affair," he said. "It was a time of great pain for myself and those close to me, the girls and their mother. That was 17 years ago. I have come through a great deal since, including many wars which have changed my way of being and of doing.

"At the same time, in these past days, my friends and the friends of my friends have been subjected to harassment in their homes and in their driveways.

"Decent and private people have been reduced to tears. None of this is remotely relevant to the issues in the Tatton constituency."

Of his journalistic career, he angrily said: "The story has even been put about that the BBC once withdrew me from Northern Ireland because I paid children to throw stones at soldiers. That is a damnable lie, and an example of the sleaze which we must purge from the political system."

Mr Bell delivered his statement at his campaign headquarters which opened today in Knutsford. His daughter Melissa claimed afterwards that rubbish bins at their Golders Green home in London had been searched and her sister Catherine had been harassed on her American college campus.

Mr Hamilton and his wife Christine last night reacted to Mr Bell's statement with mild bemusement. "Yes" said Mrs Hamilton, decent people have been reduced to tears - and I'm one of them. If he doesn't like the heat he'd better get out of Tatton." Added her husband: "If you campaign in a white suit, you must expect to get it dirty."