The Media Column: Why transport chiefs had no reason to say sorry

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The Independent Online

I would like to apologise to Pam Warren. Mostly because I am just about the only person in Britain, it seems, who hasn't. The present Secretary of State for Transport grovelled before her, as did the past Secretary of State for Transport. A Mr Dan Corry, formerly special adviser to Mr Byers, said sorry, and so – over the weekend – did Ms Barbara Roche, a minister who has absolutely nothing to do with all this.

On Saturday the Today programme featured a substantial three-way discussion, pegged to the Corry e-mail, between John Humphrys; a professor who has just written a book on political corruption; and Martin Bell, the former MP and great moral figure. Humphrys wanted to know whether history proved that corruption of the Corry kind was inevitable, given the lust for power. Bell opined that New Labour sleaze, like this e-mail exchange, was worse than the Tory kind, which had involved cash in envelopes, money for questions and, of course, the Aitken perjury.

And I thought, "This is just mad." I don't agree with corruption. I don't think lying is a good idea. But I cannot, for the life of me, see what is wrong with the Corry e-mails. Of course, it helps that I have actually read them. And here, to remind you, is the text of the first one, sent when Stephen Byers (SB in the mail) was being accused by the Paddington Survivors Group of having lied about his plans for Railtrack. "Can you," Corry asks his Labour Party contact, "get some sort of check done on the people who are making a big fuss on the Paddington Survivors Group attacking SB please (ie the ones taking over from Pam Warren). The names are in the press." When asked to clarify his request, Corry asks, "Basically, are they Tories?" In a further e-mail Corry asks, "I'm told that their spokesman Martin Minns (?) works for a PR company. Can we find more on this please."

That's more or less it. This is what is supposed to constitute a vile smear against Pam Warren (despite the fact that she is specifically exempted from the request), and an attempt by the Government to spin, distort and otherwise lie their way out of trouble. This is what triggers a major BBC discussion on political corruption.

Mr Minns is, indeed, a Tory. And not a casual, occasional one either. He underwent training as Conservative Party agent and acted as agent in the 1983 and 1987 general elections. For three years, until late 1992, he worked at Conservative Central Office as an assistant campaign director, before going off to help the Europhobic Democracy Movement. On the day the euro came into being, Mr Minns had the telephone number of a hotline – where anti-euro information could be obtained – daubed on the nether cheeks of five young ladies. Since then he has run his own PR company. He is, if you like, pure spinner.

None of this means that Mr Minns is not (a) sincere and (b) good at his job. But the question is whether a special adviser is entitled to discover what the Minns history is. On Sunday, in The Observer, the journalist Christian Wolmar, a stern critic of the Government's transport policy, said the virtually unsayable about the Survivors Group. "Such campaigners start with tremendous public sympathy which sections of the media then shamelessly exploit for their own political ends," Wolmar pointed out. "The campaigns... are legitimate political targets because their leaders are demanding changes in government policies, which would cost taxpayers billions of pounds."

Wolmar is right. If I were a minister under fire from a group for reasons unconnected with their own campaign, I would most certainly want to know who was attacking me and why. And, in truth, this is what ministers believe. But it isn't what they can say. Even Tony Blair's expression of regret was not enough for the un-wronged Mrs Warren. "I don't call that an apology," she complained. "If I punched you and then said those words, would you think that was an apology? I wouldn't."

So there she was effectively demanding that the PM lie. The strange truth here is that the e-mail was honest. It was the apology that was spin.