The Times's campaign against the billionaire businessman Michael Ashcroft is now largely forgotten. At the time it was a sensation. In the summer and autumn of 1999 the paper ran scores of articles about Lord Ashcroft, then treasurer of the Tory party and its major donor. The Times not only suggested that Lord Ashcroft was a pretty unsavoury character but also linked him to an investigation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration into money-laundering and smuggling. It appeared that the paper was out to destroy Lord Ashcroft and to discredit his main defender, William Hague, then Tory leader. Senior Tories claimed that the Times's stories were in part inspired by the government, a charge the paper denied. In December 1999 it published what was described as a 'correction' in which it conceded that it had 'no evidence that Mr Ashcroft or any of his companies have ever been suspected of money-laundering'.
All this is recalled by the dramatic ending of a court case last Friday which has barely been noted by most of the media. Lord Ashcroft received an apology from the government, which has paid his substantial costs, after he brought an action to force it to release information which he said was part of a 'political vendetta' against him. The Foreign Office and the Department of International Development acknowledged that 'various disobliging references' relating to Lord Ashcroft's business activities 'were without foundation'. Some of these lies (let us not mince words) were leaked to the Times and the Guardian, though the government claims not to know who was responsible. Among the 'disobliging references' were remarks by various British diplomats, in effect amounting to tittle-tattle, which portrayed Lord Ashcroft in a very poor light.
Why have the media not made more of this? The government has conceded that falsehoods were spread about a man who was at the time a very senior official of the Tory party. In order to prevent Lord Ashcroft from gaining full access to what was referred to in court as 'a file of dirt', it has cut short the court case and paid Lord Ashcroft's six-figure damages out of the public purse. All that is in dispute is whether the government's mendacious leaks to the press were orchestrated at the highest level, or whether they came from an unauthorised official. If the former, this is a scandal of the greatest magnitude. The charge would be that the government manipulated the Civil Service to blacken the name of the treasurer of the Tory party and, by association, the leader of the opposition.
This is supposed to be a media column, and I shall therefore now concentrate on the role of the Times. The paper began its campaign against Lord Ashcroft in early June 1999. It quoted various Foreign Office officials saying things about Lord Ashcroft which, in the light of the court case, can now be discounted. The byline which appeared most often above stories about Lord Ashcroft was that of Tom Baldwin, the paper's deputy political editor. It appears that Mr Baldwin (who, like several of his Times colleagues, is known to be close to New Labour) had a source at the Foreign Office, possibly a very junior minister. I do not particularly blame Mr Baldwin for writing his pieces, or for having a well-placed source: that is what journalists do. More questionable is the conduct of my old friend Peter Stothard, the then editor of the Times, who set out to bring down Lord Ashcroft and to damage Mr Hague with a ferocity that even now is baffling. The Times paid a US Drug Enforcement Administration analyst called Jonathan Randall to download secret files about Lord Ashcroft which were passed on to the newspaper. In the event, the Times was forced to deny any imputation that Lord Ashcroft had been linked with an investigation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration into money-laundering and smuggling.
Let me say that I hold no brief for Lord Ashcroft. I have never met or spoken with him, and I have not talked to any representative of his in the preparation of this article. It seemed to me at the time that Mr Hague was unwise to appoint as treasurer a man whose reputation as a businessman was controversial, whose fortune was based abroad (in Belize) and who had served as an ambassador for that country. But lack of wisdom is one thing, corruption another, and the Times in its hundreds of thousands of words about Lord Ashcroft has produced no evidence that he was, or is, corrupt.
What is so shaming is that, at least at the beginning of its long succession of stories, the newspaper should have worked hand-in-glove with government sources in a campaign which so manifestly served the government's interests. Sir Peter Stothard (for he was, in the end, rewarded) wrote a long and preposterously sententious piece on the eve of the 1999 Tory party conference in which he tried to justify his persecution of Lord Ashcroft and Mr Hague. He represented himself in virtuous terms, cleaning out the Augean stables. Now it emerges that the Times's own stables were pretty mucky, and that it recycled at least some of the government's lies.
Why can't the New York Times exist in Britain? Principally because of competition. It is a city paper without any direct competitors in its core market. British broadsheet newspapers are national, and therefore exist in a more competitive environment. This is a good and a bad thing. Our qualities are better designed, more lively, and better produced than the New York Times. But they are also more downmarket, less well-resourced, and less authoritative. If the New York Times were published in London as a national newspaper, it would feel the need to run pictures of Elizabeth Hurley on its front page and stories about David Beckham, because that is what all its competitors would be doing. It would calculate that if it did not do so, it would lose some of its million-odd buyers to its rivals.
But happily the New York Times is published in New York. For all the complaints of the American Right about its liberal agenda, the newspaper remains one of the wonders of the journalistic firmament. It may sometimes be boring and ponderous, but it is also serious and comprehensive and (usually) reliable.
So one reacts with some alarm to events at the New York Times following the dismissal of its reporter Jayson Blair for inventing stories, which I wrote about four weeks ago. Now the editor, Howell Raines, and the managing editor, Gerald Boyd, have been shown the door. That may be as it should be. What is worrying is that the young, quite recently installed proprietor-figure, Arthur Sulzberger Jr, is said to be tightening his grip on the paper. This would not matter if he were a newspaper genius, but he appears not to be. He is said to want to turn the New York Times into a suburban, not urban, paper, and to be prepared to take it downmarket in the process. Is he about to throw a pearl away?