Election '97: Bell caught in hail of friendly fire

BBC journalist comes out squeaky clean under probing
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Martin Bell had come under fire before; he had been wounded by shrapnel; appearing before the television cameras is second nature to the man. But there he was, trembling, fingering his watch, and nervously rubbing his forehead when he appeared before the world's media as prospective anti- sleaze candidate for Tatton yesterday.

Before he even entered the grand Smeaton Room, in the grand Institute of Civil Engineers at Westminster there were jokes about hacks fiddling their expenses, and what dirt would be dug up about him, who would fling it, and whether he would last the course ahead.

As it was, his diffidence was rather disarming. But that did not stop his fellow hacks ripping into him. Whose idea was it; who had paid for the press conference venue; why did he not know; what were his policies on tax, education, Europe; who did he vote for; what skeletons had he got in his cupboard; where did he come from; how much money did he have in the bank?

"This is, even for somebody who is accustomed to scary experiences, extreme," he said. He added later: "I would much rather run snipers' alley in my armoured vehicle, Miss Piggy, than this. I really would."

He was as honest and as open as he could possibly be in his answers, but the more honest he was, the more the pack pressed home the attack. Why would he not identify the person whose idea it was? Why did he not know who had paid for the room?

Mr Bell preferred not to divulge the name of the man who had first broached the idea. But pressed by the Mail, he said in the end: "Oh, all right, I'll tell you who it was."

It was Tom Stoddart, a photographer whose Bosnian war photos formed part of an exhibition he had opened at the Royal Festival Hall last Thursday.

The man from the Mail could not contain his glee. Beside himself, he said accusingly that Mr Stoddart had nothing to do with the Labour or Liberal Democrat parties. "He's in fact the long-term partner of Kate Hoey."

Ms Hoey is Labour MP for Vauxhall, and Mr Stoddart took the photograph of Tony Blair on the front cover of Labour's manifesto. It had all the makings of a monumental Mail conspiracy. All that was missing were skeletons, spies, dead letter boxes, the Times crossword and Asterix.

But Mr Bell, as obliging as ever, came up with the goods. When I asked whether he would pass the Sun test - was there anything in his past that he would not like exposed by the tabloids - Mr Bell said: "I have been examining my cupboard and at the moment I have to say I find it fairly bare." In all his time at the BBC he had only had his expenses queried once, and that was last November when an illiterate Delhi taxi driver had been unable to give him a receipt for a fare. He was perfectly willing to show anyone his bank statements and his tax returns; no problem.

Mr Bell was also pressed to describe in the greatest detail the route of his journey from the Royal Festival Hall, on Thursday, to the Institute of Civil Engineers.

After he had agreed, in principle, to stand in Tatton, on Saturday, he had been whisked up to the constituency on Sunday for separate meetings with the local Liberal Democrat and Labour parties "It was like a scene from a bad spy movie," he said. Having met the Liberal Democrats in Wilmslow, he had been taken to a car park and handed over to a man from the local Labour Party. "We were late," he said, "and I was handed over like a package."

He was then asked by the Express: "Given the subject of this press conference, shouldn't you know who's paying for this room?" Mr Bell looked completely nonplussed. "I probably should know who's paying for this room, yes," he said.

The man from the Times obligingly shouted out that the room had been paid for by the Labour Party - pounds 375. "I'm perfectly willing to pay pounds 375 here and now," he said. "It's not a problem." And his bank account? "What's in my bank account now? I've just got paid for my paperback, which I cannot recommend too highly. I got paid about pounds 11,000 a week ago. I spent about pounds 8,000 because my car's running out. Plus what I had in my account; I think I've now got pounds 6,500."

Mr Bell's father was the first compiler of the Times crossword; his sister translates Asterix books into English.