Police to get tape of Fayed and Hitchen

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The Independent Online
Police investigating whether Mohamed al-Fayed put criminal pressure on John Major have been to court to secure a tape-recording of a conversation between the Harrods owner and Brian Hitchen, editor of the Sunday Express.

The move comes amid speculation that the police are examining whether an offence of corruptly seeking to influence the Prime Minister was committed, rather than blackmail as widely supposed.

The court hearing follows an announcement by the Crown Prosecution Service that it had referred to the police a note of the meeting between Mr Major and Mr Fayed's ``intermediary'' at which Mr Major was first confronted with ``sleaze'' allegations about four ministers. The court move appears to confirm that Mr Hitchen was the ``intermediary''.

Mr Major told the Commons that during the same conversation he was informed Mr Fayed was contemplating passing on the allegations to others and that he wanted the DTI Inspectors' report on the House of Fraser takeover - which strongly criticised Mr Fayed - ``revised or withdrawn''. Two of the ministers named, Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton, have resigned.

Mr Hamilton, who has admitted to a short stay in 1987 at the Paris Ritz, owned by Mr Fayed, but was cleared by Sir Robin Butler's inquiry into the allegations, has issued a writ against the Guardian for claiming that he took cash for asking parliamentary questions. The Cabinet ministers named in the allegations, Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, were exonerated by Sir Robin.

Yesterday, court sources said an ex parte application was granted on Thursday by the Recorder of London, Sir Lawrence Verney, sitting in chambers. This gives police access to a taped conversation between Mr Hitchen and Mr Fayed before the visit which it appears Mr Hitchen made to Downing Street on 29 September. The conversation is understood to include details of Mr Fayed's allegations about the ministers. Mr Hitchen was unavailable for comment last night.

The legal moves are part of a preliminary inquiry into whether an offence was committed and do not mean that a full investigation, let alone a prosecution, would follow.

The case was brought by the police, who were represented by the Crown Prosecution Service, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace), which gives police powers to obtain confidential documents.

Whitehall sources last night declined to confirm or deny the hearing had taken place, but confirmed that the CPS regularly assisted the police with applications for disclosure of documents under Pace.

There has been surprise in senior legal circles at the suggestion that CPS and police inquiries could lead to proceedings for blackmail, which commonly involves demands for money with menaces.

Mr Major's disclosure in the Commons that a note of the conversation had been passed to the CPS came after Sir Peter Tapsell, Tory MP for Lindsey East, asked whether ``Mr al-Fayed should be prosecuted for attempted blackmail''. But there is a growing conviction among senior London lawyers that the police inquiries are into whether an offence was committed under the 1906 Prevention of Corruption Act.