Michael Foot is to sue Rupert Murdoch over an article in last weekend's Sunday Times alleging that he was a KGB spy, a charge that he says amounted to a "McCarthyite smear".
Although Times Group Newspapers and News Group Newspapers, publishers of the Sunday Times and News of the World respectively, were also named in the libel proceedings, the former Labour leader's solicitor, David Price, said yesterday that Mr Foot held the newspaper tycoon "personally responsible" for the article.
Mr Price said that during Mr Foot's long career as a politician and journalist he had suffered "a good many unjust or untrue statements in the media" without complaint. However, he added: "These allegations accuse him of treachery to his country and have been made even though the Sunday Times had every reason to believe that they were untrue.
"Because of the gravity of these lies, Mr Foot has decided to bring Rupert Murdoch before the jury. He holds Mr Murdoch personally responsible for this McCarthyite smear which was published as front page news."
Under the headline "KGB: Michael Foot was our agent", the Sunday Times alleged that the KGB regarded Mr Foot as an "agent of influence" during the Sixties and that it had made a number of cash payments to the left- wing journal Tribune while he was editor.
Mr Foot, who reportedly operated under the codename "Boot", immediately dismissed the story as "a big lie", adding: "As far as I know I have never met or seen a KGB agent in my life." On Sunday, John Witherow, editor of the Sunday Times, admitted to BBC radio that the allegation that Mr Foot was an agent might be "utter rubbish". The paper, he said, was merely suggesting that the KGB believed he was an agent. In a statement last night, Mr Witherow repeated that assertion, saying the paper would "vigorously defend the libel action".
Mikhail Lyubimov, a former KGB officer quoted in the article, told the Independent in Moscow this week: "The idea that Foot was any kind of agent is a ridiculous smear." A second, Viktor Kubeykin, who was said by the paper to have seen a KGB file marked "Boot" and confirmed that the organisation considered him an "agent of influence", added: "They wrote the exact opposite of what I said. This is a 100 per cent distortion."
The original allegations about Mr Foot and several trade unionists were contained in a manuscript of the Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky's memoirs, bought by the Sunday Times last September for serialisation. Mr Gordievsky's publishers, Macmillan, were reluctant to risk naming Mr Foot without any supporting evidence. Mr Witherow agreed, and dispatched a reporter to Moscow, where interviews were conducted with several KGB officers, including Mr Lyubimov and Mr Kubeykin.
William Armstrong, non-fiction publisher at Macmillan, said that the book, which comes out next month, would be "very close to what the Sunday Times wrote",but changes may be necessary.
Mr Foot said last night: "I don't like taking libel action, but I thought they would keep repeating it ad nauseam."Reuse content