Standards slip over Gould gaffe

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The Independent Online

The tale of the newspaper, the Labour Party leader, the Home Secretary's son and the fax machine, yesterday entered journalistic history, rivalling anything in Evelyn Waugh.

It started when on Monday the London Evening Standard published an article by Bryan Gould, the former Labour Shadow Cabinet member, now an academic in New Zealand, imagining himself as a 19-year-old first-time voter and explaining how he would not be able to bring himself to vote for Tony Blair. The article provoked a rash of reactions from Labour frontbenchers.

All good stuff, apart from one salient fact. Mr Gould had not written a word of the piece. He had indeed been commissioned by the Standard and did fax an article from New Zealand. But the piece of bile taken off the guilty machine by features executives was by delicious coincidence sent in on spec by an aspiring student writer.

And here is where Evelyn Waugh would have smacked his lips. The 19-year- old student, one Nick Howard, is the son of the Home Secretary, Michael Howard.

Though both pieces professed to be critiques of the Blair leadership, there were subtle distinctions evident to the student of politics. Master Howard's piece attacked "MPs like Mr Blair who have given up their socialist ideals [and] are solely interested in power."

Mr Gould's piece began: "Tony Blair has had a brilliant first year as Labour's leader. He looks like a racing certainty to take Labour to their first general election victory in over 20 years."

Lord Rothermere, proprietor, and the Standard's editor, Stewart Steven, are now eating humble pie. Mr Steven grovelled across the front page and most of page four last night. "A series of errors was made and by extraordinary mischance the article commissioned from Mr Gould came over on the fax at almost exactly the same time as another article, not commissioned and with no name on it, arrived from someone else."

Conspiracy theorists can have a field day. The paper's features editor is Alex Renton, whose father was also a Tory minister. And Sarah Sands, the assistant editor, is married to the deputy editor of the highly conservative Sunday Telegraph. But cock-up remains the most likely cause.

Some questions remain, though. Why is it that Nick Howard, 19, writes in a far more lively and readable style than Mr Gould? Why were Labour MPs so ready to believe the worst of one of their erstwhile colleagues? And how many Evening Standard executives does it take to get the right article off a fax machine?