Fine scoop - or a planned gay outing?

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL PORTILLO'S decision to "out" himself in The Times and "clear the decks", to use his phrase, before the Kensington and Chelsea by-election, bears all the signs of a canny and calculated newspaper scoop.

It would appear that the interview - which took place in July - was deliberately withheld, perhaps with knowledge of Alan Clark's declining health, until it could have the maximum impact. Some papers reported exactly that yesterday.

And the presence on The Times of Michael Gove, Mr Portillo's unauthorised biographer, lends more weight to the theory that it was an arranged "outing".

However, nothing could be further from the truth: The Times did indeed have a scoop; and Michael Portillo clearly knew what he was doing in mentioning his homosexual experiences while at Cambridge University.

But the pertinent timing of publication owes more to luck than cunning. Far from holding back the interview for more than a month, the editor of The Times, Peter Stothard, saw it for the first time last Sunday. It was then decided to slot it in at the earliest opportunity - and this turned out to be just after the announcement of the death of Alan Clark, amid speculation that Mr Portillo would apply to contest the vacant London constituency seat.

The delayed publication of such a scoop can be explained by the different approaches taken by news and features departments in newspapers. The Portillo interview was conducted by Ginny Dougary, the paper's profile writer and a member of a fast-disappearing group of journalists on national newspapers who write only a few magazine-style profiles each year, which often turn out to be revelatory. If the interviewee does reveal a lot, the information is not necessarily conveyed to the newsdesk. Instead, it is judged to be part of the added value of the profile. This, according to senior sources at The Times, is what happened here; the features staff knew what the interview would say and they guarded its content.

Ms Dougary is an excellent and extremely personable interviewer who is unafraid to ask direct questions, and the interview certainly reveals how she adopted such an approach with Mr Portillo.

She wrote: "Did you have any homosexual flings at Cambridge? I ask purely on a hunch. `I had some homosexual experiences as a young person,' he replied."

It was a major scoop, but even Ms Dougary could not have elicited it without the Portillo camp having decided to "come clean" and pave the way for him to stand for a seat without any skeletons in his cupboard.

According to a friend of Mr Portillo, the interview was expected to be published in October, but The Times contacted him earlier this week to say it intended to bring it forward in the light of recent events. Michael Gove is then understood to have become involved in the process.

Mr Stothard said last night: "Michael Portillo knew exactly what he was saying. But it was an extraordinary coincidence that Alan Clark died and we were in possession of this revelatory piece."

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