Donald Trelford on the Press

How an Indian editor got dragged into the Quinn-Blunkett affair
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The Independent Online

In other words, a serious man, but also a charming and witty companion who enjoys a good night out. MJ, as he is universally known, has a habit of arriving in London unannounced, then calling his various friends for a meal or drink. If one is unavailable, he tries another entry in his address book, and so on. In February 2004, one of the people he rang was Kimberly Quinn, then the publisher of The Spectator, with whom he had negotiated the right to use Spectator articles in his paper. She regretted that she had already made plans for dinner.

Almost immediately, however, she rang back and said that she was having dinner with the Home Secretary at the House of Commons, and would Akbar like to join them. At that time, of course, nobody knew about her affair with David Blunkett, and Akbar now believes that he was being used as a "cover" for their illicit assignation.

In the event, Blunkett had to abandon the dinner at around 8.30pm as he was called away on official duties. MJ attempted to console Quinn for her disrupted evening. "Never mind," he said, "let's go back to my hotel and have some champagne and then go out on the town." He saw a strange look on Blunkett's face that puzzled him at the time, but he believes now that it must have signalled jealous rage.

That was his only meeting with the then Home Secretary, but their paths crossed dramatically at the height of the scandal that forced the minister's resignation. Blunkett was sure that he was also the father of Quinn's second baby and was much disturbed when he discovered that this wasn't true. A story then reached The Sun that the baby was dark-skinned and the father was Asian.

The Mail on Sunday followed up this exotic twist to the fast-running story, and was told - the paper can't, of course, reveal its source - that the father was MJ Akbar. They presented the story as a "smear," a time-honoured method of avoiding a libel claim when the facts are uncertain, and implied that the leak might have been "spun" by Blunkett's supporters.

Like all of Akbar's friends, I was astonished to see the claim, albeit carefully worded, on the newspaper's front page, with his picture shown prominently inside. Soon afterwards, he arrived in London and we met for dinner. He told me that while he was in Turkey, reporters from The Mail on Sunday had called on his wife Mallika, a psychotherapist in Delhi, saying that they were conducting a survey of editors. They had a mysterious conversation with her, because the reporters were unwilling to confront her with the rumour before they had put it to her husband. The next day, however, having spoken to MJ and heard his denial, they returned to Mallika and then printed her comments on the allegation. The story was complete nonsense. Akbar had been covering the Indian general election in the first half of 2004, and only visited Britain briefly in June, accompanied by his wife. He could not have been the father. He believes that Blunkett sympathisers were responsible for planting the rumour about the baby's paternity.

The Mail on Sunday has now apologised to Akbar and Mallika, and agreed to pay their legal costs. John Wellington, the managing editor, wrote to Akbar: "We have absolutely no reason to believe there is any truth in the rumour." To Mallika, he wrote: "We considered there was a public interest in reporting the matter, given the extensive coverage which has been given in this country to the story of Mr Blunkett and his affair."

These apologies were made privately. Not another word has appeared in The Mail on Sunday, so their six million readers haven't been told that a front-page story was actually untrue - and are presumably left with the impression that it may well be true. Akbar's lawyers issued a press release about The Mail on Sunday's apology, but it wasn't used in this country because British papers do not take in each other's dirty washing.

Where, I ask, was the public interest in giving currency to a baseless rumour - which the paper says it didn't believe anyway - and thereby artificially fanning the flames of the scandal and damaging an innocent man's reputation in the process?

And what could possibly justify reporters misrepresenting themselves to his wife, in breach of the journalists' code of conduct (a charge that The Mail on Sunday denies)? And why go back to her for comments on such a marriage-threatening rumour when her husband had denied it?

Above all, did The Mail on Sunday not owe a duty to MJ Akbar - and to its readers - to make it clear that the rumour they had spread about him was a malicious lie?

One trusts that the paper will have learnt at least one lesson from this episode: to be wary of relying on that particular source, whoever it was, ever again.

Stephen Glover is away