Nick Jones

Chris Huhne’s downfall had a thread running through it which connected him to the disgrace of a long-line of post-war politicians. In almost every case it was the work of journalists which was responsible for initially exposing their misdemeanours or sexual infidelities yet those involved seemed to have believed mistakenly that they could somehow outwit the ability of Britain’s national newspapers to hold the powerful to account.

Whether it was John Profumo, John Stonehouse, David Mellor, Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken or John Prescott, they had all learned how to use – and to even manipulate – the news media yet in the end they could not keep the journalists at bay.

Often because of their prominent positions in public life or their acquaintance with newspaper proprietors, editors and broadcasting executives, politicians believe they have established some kind of protection against the worst excesses of the tabloid press.

They tend to become overconfident; they sometimes make the mistake of threatening to go over the heads of reporters direct to the editor or worst of all, try to play one newspaper or news outlet off against another  -- a sure fire way of encouraging Tony Blair’s “feral beasts” to take even greater risks.

 

Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce were the latest victims in a long line of politicians who shouldn’t have forgotten that journalists should never be taken for granted; that somewhere there will always be a reporter ready to go the extra mile to expose wrong doing or a cover-up.

John Profumo’s resignation in 1963 after he lied to the House of Commons had followed a long campaign by newspapers to expose his role in the Christine Keeler affair; the tabloid press was well and truly off the leash in the 1960s and so began an unprecedented era of intrusion into the private lives of politicians.

John Stonehouse’s seven year sentence in 1976 over fraud charges followed his relentless pursuit by British journalists following an unsuccessful attempt in 1974 by the former Postmaster General to take his own life off a beach in Miami and then his escape to Australia.

On being returned to Britain after his arrest on fraud charges Stonehouse continued as an MP while awaiting trial. I well remember as a BBC political correspondent joining other reporters as we crowded round Stonehouse at the back of the House of Commons press gallery to hear his latest protestations of innocence.

Political correspondents told a similar story forty years later as they described how right up until changing his plea to guilty in February 2013, Chris Huhne had continued to deny that he had forced to his ex-wife to take a speeding ticket on his behalf or that he tried to pervert the course of justice.

Similarly Vicky Pryce had revealed her overconfidence when attempting to manipulate news stories designed to expose Huhne.  She had co-operated with the Sunday Times political journalist Isabel Oakeshott – even to the extent of working together in failed attempts to secure tape-recordings of Huhne admitting that he had coerced his ex-wife.

But it was the Mail on Sunday which published the transcripts of the tapes the weekend after the Sunday Times broke the story. “She had been busy revealing all to a rival newspaper...Even worse she had handed it a copy of the tapes,” said Oakeshott in her account of the part she played in the Huhne-Price downfall. (Sunday Times, 10.3.2013) 

Vicky Pryce’s mistaken belief that she could somehow retain control over the way the newspapers would treat her disclosures reminded me of the over-confidence of the former Culture Secretary David Mellor who was finally forced to resign after a series of press disclosures which began with the sale by Antonia de Sancha of her kiss-and-tell story to the News of the World in 1992. 

Mellor was already a marked man for tabloid journalists after his warning that “the press...the popular press...is drinking in the last chance saloon.”  I recall only too well how Mellor tried to orchestrate news coverage in support of himself and his family in the wake of the kiss-and-tell disclosures and subsequent stories; he always seemed convinced that his pull with proprietors, editors and broadcasting executives would somehow provide some sort of protection.  

I sensed that same sense of invincibility on the part of celebrated politicians during the years I spent being rebuffed by Jeffrey Archer once the News of the World alleged in 1999 that he had committed perjury during his 1987 libel trial involving the Daily Star and the claims that Archer had paid £2,000 to a prostitute.

In the three years before he was finally found guilty in 2001 and sentenced to four years for perjury and perverting the course of justice, I was one of the many reporters who tried unsuccessfully to get doorstep interviews with Archer as he left or entered his riverside flat on the Albert Embankment.

Archer frequently chastised me for lying in wait and having the impertinence to fire off questions; he said he had every intention of complaining about my behaviour direct to my editor who happened he said, to be a friend of his.

Again I have painful memories of being lambasted by John Prescott who must have been all the more annoyed that it was the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror which published details of his indiscretions with his secretary in 2006.

Jonathan Aitken, jailed in 1999 for eighteen months for perjury and perverting the course of justice, issued an unparalleled clarion call when initially declaring his intention to mount a libel action against The Guardian:

“If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight, the fight against falsehood and those who peddle it.”

Aitken’s arrogance knew no bounds; he too had powerful friends in the news media but like Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce they can offer little protection once journalists are in full pursuit.

Illustrations: Daily Telegraph, 12.3.2013; News of the World, 19.7.992; Daily Mirror, 26.4.2006.