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LEADING ARTICLE : Michael Foot's tainted accuser

Oleg Gordievsky has spent much of his adult life as a spy. His stock-in-trade is lying and deceit. Today, he receives a pension from the British government for his activities as a double agent but, along with other redundant ex-Soviet agents, he could use a few extra roubles. What is he to do? Demand for Russian language lessons is low in his adopted suburbs of Surrey. Busking on the balalaika in Epsom would hardly keep him in vodka.

Mr Gordievsky has gone back to what he knows best: telling stories. He has realised that the press and public are interested in just the same material as his former bosses in Moscow, who once craved gossip about establishment figures sympathetic to the Soviet cause. Of course, the truth of what he tells will be almost impossible to verify. But that does not affect its market value. Like his old spymasters, we are tantalised by a supply of titbits and the promise of more to come.

Yesterday provided the latest example of Mr Gordievsky's lucrative scheme for making money. Having already unjustifiably smeared Neil Kinnock over his Russian contacts, Mr Gordievsky set about besmirching Michael Foot, who preceded Mr Kinnock as leader of the Labour Party. This time Mr Gordievsky "revealed" that Mr Foot met Russian officials during the Sixties. He claimed small sums of money had been donated by the Russians to Tribune, the left-wing newspaper that Mr Foot once managed. Yesterday Mr Foot denied that allegation. Mr Gordievsky also accused other less significant figures - former British trade union leaders - of having been cultivated by KGB officers. The tale makes compelling reading. There is more to come: Mr Gordievsky's memoirs are soon to be published so we can expect further selective revelations in the run-up to publication.

We should not get excited. Most British public figures have had inocuous contact with the Russians, and Mr Gordievsky seems to have changed his story. In February 1992 he said there were no more revelations to come about the Labour Party. He told this newspaper: "In the Labour Party some people showed a bit more warmth and kindness to the Russians, but none of them was indiscreet or too helpful. Politically or diplomatically, none of them committed any blunder or mistake. I think they were impeccable."

It seems extraordinary that such an unreliable figure should now be allowed, given the lack of supporting evidence, to damage the reputation of figures such as Mr Foot. His claim that money changed hands should have been substantiated before publication. Instead, the Sunday Times seems to have been happy to accept Mr Gordievsky at his word and so cast a shadow over Mr Foot.

The activities of Oleg Gordievsky are being presented as providing an authoritative insight into the Cold War in Britain. But the campaign of innuendo being waged against Labour politicians seems likely to achieve little more than make Mr Gordievsky an even wealthier man than he already is.