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Tuesday, July 7, 1998 Published at 09:13 GMT 10:13 UK

UK Politics

No tape of lobbyist allegations

The Observer newspaper has admitted that it has no tape recordings to back up its claims that a senior Downing Street policy adviser offered businessmen access to ministers.

Jocelyn Targett and Peter Kilfoyle debate The Observer's credibility on BBC Radio 4's Today programme
Downing Street has challenged the newspaper to prove a senior policy adviser promised a company access to ministers in the cash-for-contacts row.

The paper said there were no tapes of the conversation but the journalists behind the story had made detailed notes.

Tony Blair's office says if the newspaper does not produce the tapes by 1100BST on Tuesday then officials will assume they do not exist.

The BBC's Political Correspondent Jon Sopel: Downing Street is feeling a good deal better
The paper has accused Roger Liddle, one of the prime minister's most senior advisers, of collaborating with Derek Draper, a former Labour aide to Peter Mandelson, who is said to have offered to sell companies access to ministers.

The prime minister's official spokesman said the Downing Street Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, would be writing to Observer editor Will Hutton for a third time to call on him to release any tapes it had recorded.

"If we have not heard by 1100 (Tuesday) that there is a tape and The Observer will release it with a full transcript to help clear this situation, we will assume there is no such tape," the spokesman said.

Observer Deputy Editor Jocelyn Targett: "This is a pretty cheap tactic."
The Observer's deputy editor was scathing about the government's tactic in issuing the ultimatum.

"This is a pretty cheap tactic by the government to try and turn the story onto The Observer," said Jocelyn Targett. "The Observer is not the story, the government is."

"Quite frankly the government should be interested in finding out if these allegations are true, they shouldn't be trying to find out whether The Observer is trying to pull a fast one, The Observer is not trying to pull a fast one.

"We have exposed a problem right at the heart of government, inside 10 Downing Street."

Observer Deputy Editor Jocelyn Targett: "This is a pretty cheap tactic."
And he also accused the government of failing to understand not only the paper's allegations, but the way newspaper journalists work.

"We have never claimed to have a tape of a conversation between Liddle and our two journalists at the Banqueting House.

"It's a perfectly legitimate journalistic practice ... they were comments made by Liddle to two journalists. They were so astonished by it that they wrote it down immediately," he said.

The Downing Street ultimatum follows a demand by Commons Leader Ann Taylor that tapes of alleged conversations between journalists and the accused lobbyists and aides are handed over to the police.

The Observer's claims have also been firmly denied by the government.

The prime minister has stood by Mr Liddle, while Chancellor Gordon Brown has flatly rejected claims that details of his keynote and market-sensitive Mansion House speech had been leaked by another firm of lobbyists before he delivered it in June.

Suspended and sacked

Gerald Kaufman on BBC Radio 4's Today programme describes The Observer's behaviour as "outrageous"
The denials came after the man at the centre of the allegations - an ex-adviser to senior minister Peter Mandelson - was suspended from his job as a lobbyist with GPC Market Access and sacked as a columnist with the Daily Express.

Derek Draper is accused of working with Roger Liddle to offer clients privileged access to ministers - once they were paid.

[ image: Draper: suspended from job]
Draper: suspended from job
The Observer newspaper also said Mr Draper had told an undercover reporter he had passed on details of the government's spending plans before they were officially announced.

The decision led to renewed demands for Mr Liddle also to be suspended from his job as European affairs adviser to Tony Blair and for a full Commons statement and investigation into the claims.

Mr Liddle has denied any wrongdoing and the newspaper insisted it did not accuse him of leaking any information.

The prime minister's official spokesman said Mr Liddle had been asked about the allegations, but had not been suspended and would not be.

He also said there would be no investigation into Mr Liddle's behaviour unless evidence of wrongdoing was produced, in which case Mr Blair would take it extremely seriously.

Shadow Chancellor Francis Maude: 'You don't muck around with inside information like that'
But the Tories, who were engulfed in the "cash-for-questions" scandal before the last election, demanded a full investigation.

Shadow Chancellor Francis Maude said it was "grossly improper" for former aides to leak "stolen" information to their clients.

He said claims that Chancellor Gordon Brown's Mansion House speech had been leaked by another lobbyist amounted to "insider dealing".

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