LEADING ARTICLE:Gott in the world of Le Carre

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There is something eerie and other-worldly about the revelations concerning relations between Richard Gott, the Guardian journalist, and the KGB. The Cold War ended more than five years ago and we now live in a very different political and intelle ctual universe, which makes such events seem strange, even bizarre. In his natural defence of a good story, Dominic Lawson, the editor of the Spectator, has tried to suggest that the message is still resonant because Russia remains our enemy. Hardly.

None the less, the story raises important issues. If we assume the veracity of the Gott version of events, then his conduct was irresponsible, but not treasonable. He was foolhardy for entering into an itinerant relationship with the KGB and for not telling his editor about the paid trips to meet its officers. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Journalists and newspapers are constantly required to exercise judgment about accepting free trips and the like. It is not always an easy line to draw, but drawn it must be, and the fact is that Gott drew it in utterly the wrong place.

Of course, in the context of the events of that time, Gott's behaviour was by no means exceptional. Freebies were an integral part of the way in which the Cold War adversaries vied for influence. It is a matter of public record, for example, that plenty of journalists accepted various CIA-financed escapades. Also, what Oleg Gordievsky, the former KGB agent, claims Gott did is hardly hair-raising: "speaking about personalities, journalistic and political, giving political assessments, predicting political developments and giving an assessment of the country". In other words, standard lunchtime conversation for a political journalist.

But if, as the Spectator and Gordievsky claim, Gott was in receipt not only of three free trips but also of money in return for information and favours, then a wholly different complexion is placed on events. Gott was not a journalist who drew the line in the wrong place (as several others have done), but was playing a double role, that of senior journalist on the Guardian and paid agent of the Soviet government.

If this was the case, then Gott's journalistic position was indefensible. Nothing he ever wrote or commissioned can be considered outside the fact that he was in the pay of the KGB. When the media seeks to judge the behaviour of others, not least politicians, then it needs to keep its own house in order.