Hodge accused of smear campaign after attempt to stop BBC story

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The Independent Online

Margaret Hodge, the minister for Children, was accused last night of launching a "smear campaign" against a man who was sexually abused as a child.

The accusation was made as Ms Hodge tried to open a new line of attack on the BBC, calling a report on Radio 4's Today programme "deplorable" and accusing it of "sensationalism".

The row was provoked by a report from Angus Stickler that questioned Ms Hodge's role when she was leader of Islington council in north London between 1982 and 1992.

His report was based on claims from Demetrious Panton, 36, who was abused over a three-and-a-half-year period by Bernie Bain, the manager of a children's home run by Islington council.

Mr Panton told the programme that he complained about Bain, described by police as a "brutal sexual abuser", three times ­ in 1979, 1985 and 1992. Mr Panton said last night that he could prove "that politicians knew what was taking place in their homes".

Following investigations by Mr Stickler, Ms Hodge wrote a letter of complaint to senior BBC executives, including the director general Greg Dyke and the chairman Gavyn Davies, in which she appeared to cast doubt on Mr Panton's judgement. He was, she wrote, "an extremely disturbed person". She added: "Mr Stickler's sole interest in the matter appears to be connecting me with the circumstances of Mr Panton's case."

Last night, Mr Panton threatened to sue the minister for libel. Mr Panton told The Independent: "Rather than engaging with me, attempts have been made to try to gag me by smearing me ­ by an individual who knows nothing about me." He said Ms Hodge had never met him ­ though he has written to her in the past.

He added: "My lawyers will be writing to Gavyn Davies asking for a copy of the letter Ms Hodge has sent. When we see that letter we will be looking at it to see whether or not I have been the victim of a libel."

Mr Panton has been described by Det Insp John Sweeney, who led the police investigation into Bain, as "very articulate and very measured". Mr Panton has recently been employed as a government consultant, offering advice to the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott on the New Deal.

Tim Yeo, the shadow Health and Education secretary, accused Ms Hodge of launching a "smear campaign" against Mr Panton.

Yesterday Ms Hodge appeared partially to backtrack. An aide conceded that the minister had employed "an unfortunate turn of phrase" in her letter. But the minister said she was "taken aback" that the Today programme had chosen to make the letter public.

A BBC source said that as the letter had been sent "as an open fax" to several people, the Today programme did not consider it private. There was a feeling among some people in the BBC that Ms Hodge's attack was "opportunistic".

Ms Hodge said: "Since becoming Children's minister in June, Angus Stickler and the Today programme have been constantly telephoning friends and colleagues to dig up details of events which happened between 10 and 20 years ago. The Today programme have failed to interview any of these people who give a contemporary account of events, they have tried and failed to substantiate my involvement in this case when I was leader."

Bain committed suicide in 1995, after the British authorities began extradition proceedings to bring him back to the UK from Morocco.

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