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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 December 2005, 17:53 GMT
MPs attack 'disreputable' Meyer
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

Sir Christopher Meyer
Sir Christopher mounted a strong defence of his book
Memoirs by ex-ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer have been branded "disreputable" and "unpleasant" by members of a committee of MPs.

Chairman Tony Wright accused Sir Christopher of damaging future trust between diplomats and politicians.

And Labour's Paul Flynn asked whether he was a fit person to be chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

Sir Christopher said he believed he had followed the proper procedures in clearing the book for publication.

'Red-socked fop'

Sir Christopher's book, DC Confidential, was serialised in two national newspapers and detailed his time as British ambassador to Washington.

It dubs several Cabinet ministers "political pygmies".

I'm surprised by the political reaction, I'm surprised by some of the press reaction, but, for God's sake, this is a democracy
Sir Christopher Meyer

He describes John Prescott arriving "at the embassy like a mastiff with his hackles up". And he notes the deputy prime minister "never appeared to be sufficiently up on these (foreign policy) issues".

At one meeting with a US senator about the former Yugoslavia, Mr Prescott is quoted talking about war in the "Balklands" and "Kovosa".

Mr Prescott hit back at Sir Christopher after the book's publication, branding him a "red-socked fop".

'Green light'

Sir Christopher told the Commons public administration committee he had been "surprised" by political and press reaction to the book, particularly the "red-socked fop thing".

He said he believed he had "played by the rules" and gained proper clearance before publication.

But he thought there was "something very wrong" with the way the rules governing breaches of confidence by former diplomats are applied.

"The fact of the matter is that the Foreign Office applies these rules in one way for those in service and another for those who have been retired. It is a matter of custom and practice," he said.

He said he had made countless media appearances since retiring as an ambassador without the Foreign Office telling him he had broken any rules.

When he got a phone call from the Cabinet Office saying the government had no comment to make on the manuscript of his book he interpreted that as the "green light" to go ahead with publication, Sir Christopher told the committee.

'Disreputable enterprise'

Labour MP Mr Wright laughed at Sir Christopher's answer, adding: "I laughed because that's a laughable statement."

All you seem to want to do is blame other people for this unpleasant book
Paul Flynn, Labour MP

Sir Christopher replied: "I don't think that's a laughable statement."

In a series of sharp exchanges with members of the committee, Mr Wright told Sir Christopher: "People thought this was a wholly disreputable enterprise which you should not go anywhere near. You were going to publish this book anyway."

Sir Christopher replied: "No." He said he thought the Cabinet Office would have invited him in to discuss any changes it wanted in the manuscript.

He went on: "If there had been breaches of confidence or breaches of trust, why did the process not pick them up? Why was the book allowed to proceed?"

'Private benefit'

Mr Wright described Sir Christopher's book as "idiotic", adding: "It may make you some money but it brings a whole tradition of public service down with it and closes ever tighter the circle around people at the centre, who can no longer trust people they have traditionally relied for impartial advice." Sir Christopher said he disagreed and had witnessed "no great restraint on the part of special advisers" writing books.

Mr Wright told him: "You may have gained a private benefit from this but there's been a public disbenefit from this from which we will all suffer."

Sir Christopher told the MPs: "I don't think my reputation has been damaged by this publication at all. There are some people, obviously, who don't like it, who disagree with it. I have to say the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive."

But he added: "I'm surprised by the political reaction, I'm surprised by some of the press reaction, but, for God's sake, this is a democracy."

'Tittle tattle'

Another Labour member of the committee, Gordon Prentice, said Sir Christopher's assertion that the Foreign Office had not contacted him to remind him of his obligations under the Official Secrets Act during his two years of commentary was "a lie".

Mr Prentice said: "That's just a lie, a lie."

Sir Christopher replied: "I'm afraid that is not a lie."

Paul Flynn, another Labour member of the committee, charged: "All you seem to want to do is blame other people for this unpleasant book."

Lord Turnbull
Lord Turnbull wants tighter rules on civil servants' diaries

He questioned whether Sir Christopher was a fit person to be chairman of the PCC after publishing "tittle tattle".

Sir Christopher replied: "Entirely fit. There are a lot of people out there who do not think this book is a mass of tittle tattle."

He said he did not know much money he would be receiving for the book, adding later: "I don't feel any pang of conscience about this book. I stand by this book."

'Underpants' denial

He said it had not been his intention to reveal the "boudoir secrets" of politicians but merely comment "on the way in which ministers did their job".

And he hit back at claims the book includes a description of Former Prime Minister John Major being briefed by officials before breakfast in his underpants.

"I have never used the words underpants, boxer shorts, thongs, speedos or whatever in relation to John Major," Sir Christopher told MPs.

He said he had written about Mr Major in his "shirt tails" and, in any case, a similar account had appeared in The Goldfish Bowl, Cherie Blair's book about prime ministerial spouses, which had been cleared for publication by Howell James, the government's permanent secretary for communications.

Asked why had sought writing advice from novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford, he said he had wanted to make his book "accessible".

Turnbull attack

He assured MPs there would not be a "DC Confidential 2" or a "PCC Confidential" but he was thinking of writing a novel.

Former Downing Street spin doctor Lance Price, who published his diaries of the period between 1997 and 2001 earlier this year, told the committee he had waited five years before publication and - unlike many anonymous Whitehall sources - his name was "on the dust jacket".

"I think that if we are living in a modern democracy, then the people we seek to work for and to represent have a right to know how that democracy functions," Mr Price told the committee.

Former Cabinet secretary Lord Turnbull also gave evidence, launching a withering attack on Mr Price and Sir Christopher for betraying ministerial confidences.

He said he hoped by the time of what he called "the big C, the Alastair Campbell Diaries" the committee would have published its report and "the bar will have been raised, the test may be higher" for when former government employees could publish their memoirs.


SEE ALSO:
Meyer to stay at press watchdog
23 Nov 05 |  UK Politics
Meyer defends diplomatic memoirs
13 Nov 05 |  UK Politics
Memoirs shine new light on war
07 Nov 05 |  UK Politics
Meyer memoirs attract new critics
12 Nov 05 |  UK Politics


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