Bob Hawke 'sought cash to spy on Keating'

CONRAD BLACK, the Canadian press magnate, shocked Australia's politicos yesterday when he claimed that Bob Hawke, the former Labor prime mininster, had asked to act as his secret paid consultant to report on Paul Keating, Mr Hawke's successor.

The revelation came as Mr Black, owner of the Daily Telegraph, appeared before a parliamentary inquiry in Australia to reply to accusations that he had been involved in deals with Mr Keating to increase his controlling interest in the Fairfax newspaper group, publisher of the country's most influential titles, including the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, of Melbourne.

When Mr Hawke appeared as a witness last week, describing his encounter with Mr Black in Canberra before Mr Keating unseated Mr Hawke as prime minister in late 1991, he attacked Mr Black's credibility. 'The simple fact is that Conrad Black does not tell the truth,' Mr Hawke said.

Making his long-awaited appearance as a witness at the inquiry in Sydney yesterday, Mr Black drew gasps from the packed public gallery when he said of Mr Hawke: 'This is a man who . . . saw fit to ask my colleague, Mr Dan Colson, some months ago if we would anonymously hire him and pay him dollars 50,000 ( pounds 34,000) to be our 'eyes and ears in Canberra' to keep an eye on his successor. We did not accept the offer.'

Mr Black accused Mr Hawke of being 'grossly offensive', 'histrionic' and having done 'sloppy research' in his evidence. 'I have never been accused in my entire career of what Bob Hawke accused me of,' he said.

At a press conference later, Mr Black said of Mr Hawke's attack on him last week: 'I was absolutely shocked. It was a disgraceful performance by a three- or four-term prime minister of a serious country.' Asked why he had turned down Mr Hawke's offer, he said: 'We didn't think he was . . . the best person to tell us what Mr Keating was up to.' Mr Black's evidence was the most sensational so far at the inquiry by a committee of the Senate, the parliament's upper house, into Mr Black's ownership of the Fairfax group, which he acquired in late 1991.

The inquiry was sparked last November by Mr Black's autobiography, A Life in Progress, in which he disclosed that Mr Keating had agreed in 1992 to 'entertain' Mr Black's application to increase his controlling stake in Fairfax from 15 to 25 per cent if the Fairfax newspapers were 'balanced' in their political coverage. After the election in March last year, the Labor government did approve Mr Black's application for 25 per cent, the maximum allowed under rules on foreign ownership of newspapers.

The inquiry was forced by opposition MPs, who outnumber the government in the Senate. Mr Black declined to speculate yesterday on Mr Hawke's motivation for his attack. In his book, Mr Black describes Mr Hawke as 'a charming old political roue' who was 'not reliable'.

Since leaving politics, Mr Hawke has been involved in business deals and consulting. He was outside Australia yesterday and unavailable.

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