Guardian writer `naive and silly'

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The Independent Online
Victoria Brittain, a senior journalist at The Guardian, has been called "surprisingly naive" by her paper's ombudsman for allowing her bank account to be used to channel money to fund a libel action against The Independent.

Kathy Marks examines the internal Guardian report on Ms Brittain's conduct.

Ms Brittain, the Guardian's deputy foreign editor, "made a silly mistake" and showed "poor judgement" in allowing her account be used by Kojo Tsikata, former head of the Ghanaian security service, as a conduit for pounds 250,000 of legal fees.

John Willis, the paper's ombudsman, says he accepts that she was not aware that much of the money came from Libyan sources, and concludes that she did not compromise her journalistic integrity in helping out Mr Tsikata, an old friend.

He calls it "curious", though, given the closeness of the friendship, that their conversations about the origins of the funds were as limited as she claims.

"While accepting that she never asked Mr Tsikata where the money came from, it is surprising that, as a journalist, and knowing the sensitivity of these matters, she did not ask," Mr Willis says.

Ms Brittain's actions came to light last August when David Shayler, a former MI5 officer, revealed that she had been the target of a year- long surveillance operation which included telephone taps and a plan to raid her home.

MI5 suspected that she was involved in money laundering, but it transpired that the funds were being transferred to Bindman and Partners, a London firm of solicitors which was representing Mr Tsikata in his action against The Independent.

Mr Willis accepts that, apart from administering the money, Ms Brittain played no part in the litigation, which arose from an article in The Independent in 1992 about a public inquiry into the execution of three high-court judges in Ghana.

She was more than a "mere postbox", as originally asserted by Mr Rusbridger, since she transferred the money between her own accounts and then into Bindman's, faxing Mr Tsikata to nofify him when funds arrived.

But, Mr Willis adds: "However unpalatable for some people to see one journalist implicitly supporting a libel action against others, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that ... her actions seem to have been limited and she was some way from being a significant player in the libel action."

According to Mr Shayler, much of the money came from Libyan sources, particularly Khalifa Ahmed Bazelya, head of the Libyan interest section at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London.

Mr Willis says there is "absolutely no evidence" that Ms Brittain was aware of the source of the funds, apart from a cheque for pounds 10,000 from Youssef Ibrahim, a Ghanaian businessman.

But he says: "To allow your bank account to be used in this way without thinking that you could be compromised ... is surprisingly naive." It would have been "wiser, more prudent" for her to have avoided any involvement.

He concludes that Ms Brittain will have to live with claims of potential bias if she ever writes about Ghana again. But he says she did not personally profit from the affair and "is surely entitled to one piece of bad judgement".

The Court of Appeal has ruled that the article in The Independent was protected by qualified privilege. Mr Tsikata's solicitors have indicated that he intends to proceed with the action, arguing that publication of the report was "malicious".