Press watchdog in crisis over Ingham

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PRESS Complaints Commission has become embroiled in an extraordinary political crisis over attempts to appoint Sir Bernard Ingham as a lay member.

Sir Bernard, Lady Thatcher's press secretary for 11 years in Downing Street, is a vigorous and sometimes bitter critic of journalists, particularly those who were hostile to Lady Thatcher. The attempt to draft him in, by Lord Wakeham, Commission chairman and formerly one of Lady Thatcher's most trusted ministers, has split the three-man appointments committee. It has provoked the fury of a second member, the shadow Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who, as a leading barrister, was mentor to the young Tony Blair.

The third member, caught in the middle, is Harry Roche, chairman and chief executive of the Guardian Media Group

The matter will be raised by Labour in the Commons tomorrow. Yesterday, however, a senior source from the Complaints Commission - which adjudicates complaints against newspapers - accused Labour of "playing politics".

Lord Wakeham is anxious to renew his one-time government partnership with Sir Bernard. But Lord Irvine, still a close ally of Tony Blair, has told colleagues it will happen over his dead body. Sir Bernard, now a Daily Express columnist, is a highly controversial figure, of whom John Biffen once said: "One would begin to imagine that we have in Mr Bernard Ingham some sort of rough-spoken Yorkshire Rasputin who is manipulating government and corroding the standards of public life."

In a letter to Lord Wakeham, described as "blistering", Lord Irvine argued that Sir Bernard's appointment would be impossible because the Commission's constitution specifies that working journalists cannot become lay members.

A one-time employer of Mr Blair and his wife Cherie, Lord Irvine has discussed resignation from the Commission with Labour MPs. Yesterday Chris Smith, shadow Secretary of State for National Heritage, backed Lord Irvine.

He said: "I think Bernard Ingham would be wholly inappropriate as a lay member of the Commission. He is a practising journalist and he is such a robustly and rudely opinionated man that I think it would be impossible for him to act as an impartial judge on sensitive matters".

Mark Bolland, director of the Commision, responded: "Sir Bernard is not engaged in or connected with the business of publishing and, in the view of the PCC solicitor, he would therefore qualify as a public member of the PCC." A senior Commission source raised the stakes, attacking Lord Irvine's position as an "active politician" on the Commission, adding: "In the view of some of the Commission he is trying to play politics.

"We are not the toy of the Labour Party and we would not tolerate this sort of behaviour from the Lord Chancellor. Why should we with his shadow?"

Yesterday Mr Roche was believed to be siding with Lord Irvine after pressure from colleagues in the industry.

But a speedy conclusion is unlikely; the Commission has discovered that its appointments committee itself is illegally constituted, with two fewer members than are required under its constitution.