The Ashcroft Affair: `I didn't collude with newspaper'

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The Independent Online
CONSERVATIVE CLAIMS of a conspiracy between the Labour Party, Rupert Murdoch and The Times over its coverage of Michael Ashcroft's business affairs were dismissed as "nonsense" yesterday.

As the newspaper and the Conservative Party treasurer prepare to do battle in court, Peter Bradley, the MP who disclosed details in the Commons of drugs investigations which named Mr Ashcroft, denied collusion. Tory claims that he was a pawn of The Times using his Parliamentary privilege - and its protection from legal action - to publicise US drugs investigations naming Mr Ashcroft, was a smokescreen, he said. "I put my name down to speak more than two weeks ago and, when I was called by the Speaker, I decided to use the opportunity to cover my concerns about Michael Ashcroft.

"I knew The Times had seen documents, which they had written about, and I asked if I could see them. It was not the other way around. To say that I was put up to it by The Times is nonsense. I had been interested in this for months."

As early as March, The Independent contacted Mr Bradley about the issue when it was shown one of the inquiry reports naming Mr Ashcroft. After that meeting, he continued his own inquiries and wrote to William Hague asking whether he considered it appropriate for a tax exile who serves at the United Nations as the ambassador for another country to be treasurer of the Conservative Party.

Last Tuesday, on the eve of his speech, Times journalists met him in the Commons, at his request, to show him the documents. But yesterday Tories insisted the newspaper had used him to get the information into the public domain.

In the Commons, Tory MP Gerald Howarth asked Deputy Speaker Michael Martin to take action to stop MPs being used by newspapers. "I wonder whether you will not consider it time that this House took action to ensure that MPs do not allow themselves to be used as pawns for national newspapers seeking to protect the position of their editors and to increase their circulation at the expense of the truth," he said.

Peter Stothard, editor of The Times, told BBC Radio 4's The World at One that his reporters were approached first by Mr Bradley. "We were happy to give him help in preparing his speech," he said, describing Conservative claims as a "tactic ... to divert attention from the substance of the allegations we have been investigating".

He said Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Times, had nothing to do with initiating the investigation of Mr Ashcroft, and he was unaware of him until the inquiry began. "Mr Murdoch, except in the world of media fantasy, has nothing to do with the editorial policy of The Times," Mr Stothard added. "He gives no instructions to me or any other journalist."

A senior Drugs Enforcement Administration officer involved in an investigation that threw up Mr Ashcroft's name told The Independent in March that the DEA found nothing untoward in his dealings in spite of exhaustive inquiries.

Subsequently, the newspaper published details of the Belize shipping register, where Mr Ashcroft had an interest, which had one of the worst safety records in the world.