Journalists are gossipy creatures. Some of them are happy to pass on stories which are to the detriment of their own newspapers to journalists on rival titles, or even to Private Eye. Most newspaper managements shrug their shoulders, and accept that indiscretion is in the nature of the beast.
But not the Telegraph Media Group. On 20 December The Daily Telegraph published various ruminations wrung from the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, by two delectable young female reporters posing as constituents. That afternoon Robert Peston disclosed in his blog on the BBC website that Mr Cable had also told the two journalists that he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch by referring his offer to buy out BSkyB to Ofcom.
The Telegraph, plainly embarrassed, claimed it was planning to publish this revelation the following day. But the fact that it had withheld what was by far Mr Cable's most interesting reflection inevitably raised questions. Was the story kept out because the Telegraph Media Group opposes Mr Murdoch's proposed takeover, and did not want Mr Cable's own opposition to be made public? The paper said not.
Whatever the truth of the matter, its management was determined to discover who had leaked the story to Mr Peston. A sort of Star Chamber was set up. Amazingly, the private investigative firm Kroll Associates – a pretty tough outfit – was called in to conduct the inquiry. A number of members of staff have been interviewed. In some cases the examination of possible suspects is said to have gone on for two hours. I understand that Kroll believes it has unearthed some vital information, and is close to the end of its investigation.
Recently pulses beat faster at the paper when the editor's secretary, Jane Cullen, was made redundant. It was noted by some that Ms Cullen had been appointed by Will Lewis, the immediate predecessor of the current editor, Tony Gallagher. It so happens that Will Lewis is believed by some in the management to have been instrumental in the leak to Mr Peston. If he were, there would be no imputation of impropriety, since he is now a very senior management figure in the Murdoch empire, and has no obligations towards his old employer. He is a near neighbour, former colleague and very close friend of Mr Peston's.
Senior sources at The Telegraph insist that Ms Cullen's departure was a matter of reorganisation, and there is no suggestion of her having acted as Mr Lewis's source. Be that as it may, Mr Lewis is still widely suspected of having been the conduit. If he was, and if Ms Cullen did not tip him off, who did? Maybe Kroll will tell us. One person who originally came under suspicion was Robert Winnett, The Telegraph's deputy political editor, whose byline was one of those on the original story about Mr Cable. He is said to be completely in the clear.
I must say this is a rum do. I can't remember any newspaper ever bringing in an outside investigative company, or indeed conducting so extensive and rigorous an internal inquiry. It makes me quake in my shoes just to think about it – and I am wholly innocent. Is such an approach very good for morale? Does it bind the troops and management closer together? The answer to both questions must surely be no. There is more than a whiff of the revolutionary tribunal about the modern Daily Telegraph.
One can only conclude that very senior members of the newspaper's management were deeply embarrassed by Mr Peston's scoop. The culprit must be made to pay. My advice, not that they will take it, would be to cool it. This is only journalism, after all. The security of the State is not at stake. And there is no point in expecting journalists to behave with the sense of honour and discipline of the old Prussian officer class.
'Impurity' at the Guardian
A characteristically lofty and notably rambley missive emerged from the private compound of Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, last week, and was published on the newspaper's website. Even experienced Rusbridger-watchers rubbed their chins. Were these the disconnected ravings of a man who has enjoyed supreme power for so long that he has parted company with reality?
Apparently not. Mr Rusbridger seems to have been responding to the striking allegations of the blogger Guido Fawkes last Monday, though naturally he is far too grand to mention Guido by name, and affects to be unaware of his existence. Guido had declared that The Guardian had been hypocritical in attacking Barclays Bank for paying one per cent tax on profits of £11.6bn. According to Guido, the newspaper's parent, Guardian Media Group (GMG), holds hundreds of millions of pounds of assets in a Caymans Island domiciled offshore corporation. Among other head spinning allegations is the suggestion that GMG has £223.8m invested in an overseas/offshore hedge fund managed by Cambridge Associates, which trades currency derivatives.
Crikey! Mr Rusbridger's roundabout response is first to suggest playfully that the Scott Trust, The Guardian's ultimate owner set up in 1932, was "in a way. . . some kind of tax dodge". He admits his newspaper has "no thought of profit in the immediate future" and concedes its reliance on the asset-rich GMG. He then quotes two tax experts who have given GMG's accounts a clean bill of health. He states that "total purity for any company in the modern world is difficult to define, let alone achieve", and concludes with the assertion that "it does need journalists to engage with this complex subject".
In other words, Guido Fawkes was largely right. It is a vintage piece of Rusbridger-ese, a veritable masterpiece. The exact allegations are never considered. Instead we are treated to a lot of high-minded mumbo jumbo whose inner message is that The Guardian cannot be at fault because it is The Guardian. How much better if he had put up his hands, admitted the charges, denied all illegality, and agreed that we live in a fallen world. I only wonder what The Guardian's in-house termagant, Polly Toynbee, will make of it all.