Labour MP says 'Guardian' story a libellous lie

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The Independent Online

The Labour front bench MP George Howarth yesterday launched a High Court libel action over a parliamentary sketch he claimed painted him as a boorish foul-mouthed drunk not fit to be in Parliament.

The Guardian sketch writer Simon Hoggart recounted in a report last year how the MP for Knowsley North had bumped abusively into a fellow Liverpudlian without apologising.

Mr Howarth yesterday told the High Court the encounter never happened and launched a claim for damages for embarrassment and distress. He accused Mr Hoggart of reports "laced with nastiness" rather than humour, and said: "I feel very offended."

Mr Howarth told the High Court he did not like the tendency to poke fun at MPs in reports from the Commons but conceded it was "part and parcel" of proceedings. Yet the article by Mr Hoggart had been based on an alleged incident completely unconnected with Parliament and which was not true, the 46-year-old MP said.

Discussing a debate on extending Sunday licensing laws, Mr Hoggart had highlighted MPs' drinking habits. He went on to recount how Mr Howarth had walked into musician and broadcaster Fritz Spiegl in Soho, central London, and berated him with the words: "What do you fucking well want to stop like that for?"

The sketch ended: "This is of course exactly the kind of behaviour one expects from MPs when they have not had enough to drink. Happily yesterday's Bill will soon put that right."

Mr Howarth said that although he was hurt, he had laughed off a previous occasion when Mr Hoggart had described him as looking like a "serial axe murderer". But he went on: "To be made out to be the sort of person wandering round the streets, bumping into people, shouting abuse - it's simply out of character. That is not a question of humour, of sending me up ... it's actually stating as a matter of fact that I was involved in some incident that was to my discredit."

Michael Tugendhat QC said Mr Howarth believed the words indicated he was "boorish, foul-mouthed and uncivilised, and/or a drunkard and not an appropriate person to fulfil the role of shadow minister."

He said the Guardian insisted the story was true but denied Mr Howarth's interpretation of it. In its defence, the newspaper is expected to bring evidence of an occasion when Mr Howarth allegedly punched a journalist, which he denies.

The case continues.