Leading Article: Facts please, Lord Archer

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The Independent Online
'IT IS completely untrue. I did not buy any shares.' So spoke Lord Archer on 7 July this year, when it was first revealed that the Department of Trade and Industry was investigating allegations that he was guilty of insider trading. We now have some facts, though not because Lord Archer has volunteered any of them. On 13 and 14 January this year, he telephoned a stockbroker, asking to purchase 50,000 shares in Anglia TV. The shares were purchased for Broosk Saib, a Kurdish acquaintance of Lord Archer's. On 12 January, Lord Archer's wife, Mary, had attended a board meeting at Anglia TV, of which she is a non-executive director, where detailed terms for a takeover of the company were discussed - on a strictly confidential basis, naturally. On 18 January, the takeover was publicly announced. The share price soared. Lord Archer instructed the stockbroker to sell at a profit of pounds 80,000. The cheque for Mr Saib was sent to Lord Archer's London address.

So far, so odd. Three large questions (subsuming about 300 smaller ones) remain. Does insider trading matter? Does Lord Archer matter? What on earth was Lord Archer up to? To which the answers are yes, yes, and it is about time Lord Archer told us.

First, insider trading. Using privileged information that is not available to the wider public in order to make a profit from shares is a criminal offence. But some people - insiders, naturally - argue that it is a 'victimless crime'. This is nonsense. Money does not grow on trees, even in Grantchester. The people who sold shares to Archer/Saib for less than pounds 5 would certainly not have done so if they had had reason to believe that, a few days later, the price would rise to well over pounds 6. If Mr Saib pocketed pounds 80,000, other people must have lost that amount or, more precisely, have taken less profit than they might otherwise have done. Nothing wrong with that, you might say; it's the luck of the draw or the spin of the wheel. And share-dealing indeed has some resemblances to playing the casino. But when you enter a casino you have the right to expect an unbiased roulette wheel.

There is a wider issue. Shares exist not primarily to satisfy gambling instincts but to provide capital for the nation's trade and industry. People will be more reluctant to invest - and, heaven knows, British industry and commerce need investment - if they believe that the Stock Exchange operates unfairly.

Second, Lord Archer. He is a prominent public figure - once an MP, now a member of the House of Lords. He has been a close adviser to both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. He is a rousing public speaker, particularly when (as at last year's Tory party conference) he denounces the growth of lawlessness in our society. He cannot regard himself as a private citizen. He must surely understand that his curious share dealings will be seen as just another example of the sleaze and greed, the inability to resist a quick buck and a short-cut that have so discredited the party of which he is supposed to be a loyal servant. Worse, the suspicions about his actions undermine one of the axioms of the last 15 years of Conservative government: that capitalism and share ownership are for everybody, not just for a charmed elite that happens to be in the swim and in the know. The laws against insider trading, indeed, were introduced precisely to give the small investor a better chance against the City cognoscenti.

Which brings us to the final question. What was he up to? Lord Archer admits only to 'a grave error' which may have embarrassed his wife; he has denied using insider knowledge and denied making any money himself. This requires us to believe that his purchase of shares was pure coincidence, that neither Lord nor Lady gave the other the merest hint of what was going on. But perhaps no leap of credulity is required here. A household in which the husband apologises to his wife in a public statement issued through a solicitor might not be one that chats as other households do.

Still, the questions remain. Why did Mr Saib, a well-heeled interior designer, who has frequently bought shares on his own account, need Lord Archer's assistance and address? Why were the shares bought through a stockbroker unfamiliar to either man? No doubt some answers are in the DTI report which decided that no action should be taken. But a government department cannot be expected to publish a report on an investigation where it found no wrongdoing. Only Lord Archer can provide the answers. He should do so at once.