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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 16:35 GMT
Power behind the scenes
Lord Wakeham
Wakeham - stepping aside 'as a matter of honour'
Nick Higham

He is one of the wiliest of political fixers, and like all good fixers he does his best work behind the scenes.

Perhaps that is one reason why Lord Wakeham has stepped down from his most prominent public position, as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, until such time as the Enron affair has run its course.

For the past week, ever since Enron spilled over into a domestic political scandal in the UK, Lord Wakeham has kept a low profile.

Earlier this week he was unavailable for interviews - he was apparently on a business trip in Europe. On Thursday he was equally unavailable - on a trip to the West Country.

I am stepping aside as a matter of honour

Lord Wakeham

But in a written statement he explained that as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission for the past seven years, he was only too aware of the damage that can be done to individuals and institutions that are thrust into the public spotlight.

"Since the collapse of Enron, I have been unable to make any statement or undertake any interviews on the subject for legal reasons," he said.

"I am conscious that some see this position as incompatible with the chairmanship of the commission."

He was therefore stepping aside temporarily "as a matter of honour" to avoid the commission "being damaged by continuing short-term speculation".

Balancing act

The commission is a tender plant, and one that could be easily damaged if it got sucked into a scandal like Enron.

It has to tread a difficult line, balancing on the one hand public and political demands for tough sanctions against newspapers which get things wrong, or otherwise misbehave, with the need to keep on side the newspapers themselves (which pay for the commission and voluntarily accept its rulings) and their editors (several of whom serve as members).

Powerful figures like the prime minister and the Royal Family seek its help in protecting their children from too much public exposure, while the papers themselves are conscious of an insatiable appetite on the part of readers for stories, pictures and gossip about the famous and their offspring.

If you are the subject of speculation about how you are behaving your situation is impossible

Russell Twisk
Commission member

Lord Wakeham's fellow commissioners were not pressing him to stand aside, but now he has done so they are relieved.

Russell Twisk, the editor of Reader's Digest and a member of the commission, says Lord Wakeham had to stand down.

"You are commenting on how other people are doing their jobs, you are sitting in judgment on newspapers and I think if you yourself are the subject of much speculation about how you're behaving, that makes your situation impossible."

Skilled fixer

Lord Wakeham's links with Enron go back to 1989 when he was energy secretary and the company won a 700m contract to build a new power station on Teesside.

In 1994, two years after he stepped down as energy secretary, he joined Enron as a non-executive director.

He now faces questioning by a US inquiry into the firm's collapse, especially about his role as a member of the board's audit committee, which was supposed to exercise independent scrutiny of the company's affairs in the interests of shareholders.

His skills as a fixer first came to light when he was Margaret Thatcher's chief whip.

Tony Blair too made use of them, when he asked Wakeham to chair an inquiry into reform of the House of Lords.

But that was an occasion when his fixing talents apparently deserted him.

The resulting report was an attempt to reconcile widely conflicting views on the way forward for the Lords: it ended up pleasing no-one and has effectively been gathering dust ever since its completion.

See also:

30 Jan 02 | UK Politics
PCC chief urged to stand down
31 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Full text of Wakeham's statement
28 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Papers censured over Euan coverage
29 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Q&A: Enron sleaze row
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