Letter: Prescott `smears

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I WOULD like to respond to your paper's prominent coverage of criticism of The Sunday Times by John Prescott. You quote Mr Prescott as saying we were trying to smear him and "rubbishing in the gutter" ("Prescott rages at Sunday Times", Independent on Sunday, 15 March).

The facts tell a different story. We put a journalist, Simon Trump, into Mr Prescott's Hull constituency in 1996 because of rumours of political infighting and to find out at grassroots what was going on. We used subterfuge (the reporter did not reveal he was a journalist) precisely because we wanted to get at the truth. Mr Trump was a passive observer at meetings over a period of months and did not act as an agent provocateur. In the event little of interest emerged and no story was written by Mr Trump when the investigation ended over a year ago. If it had been an attempt to smear Mr Prescott, a less scrupulous paper would have tried harder to find something pejorative.

I am happy to defend subterfuge as a crucial journalistic tool. Many stories, including "cash for questions", would not have been written without it. They were published because they were in the public interest, and the subterfuge was revealed to readers.

As for the two recent stories by The Sunday Times about Mr Prescott, one was about a row in Hull which had already appeared in a local paper. Why should we not cover a vicious public argument involving the Deputy Prime Minister's son? The other was the non-declaration by Mr Prescott of a large donation. That is now being investigated by Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Two legitimate reports hardly amount to a "vendetta". Mr Prescott was happy in opposition to use our stories about Tory sleaze and foreign funding of the Conservative Party for political advantage. Now in government he seems unwilling to accept the inevitable scrutiny that comes with being such a powerful politician.

JOHN WITHEROW

Editor

The Sunday Times

London E1

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