IDS refusal to answer press 'breached openness rules'

The papers that covered Crick’s ‘Betsygate’ allegations may face legal action

Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith has been accused of breaking Commons rules on openness in public life for the way he dealt with the press over the “Betsygate” row.

According to Dean Nelson, editor of The Sunday Times Insight team, Duncan Smith’s earlier blanket refusal to discuss questions about the employment of his wife broke Commons guidelines.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life rules state: “Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.”

Both The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph broke the Betsygate story in their first editions on 5 October.

In the week running up to that, Nelson said he was met with a blanket refusal to discuss the allegations by Duncan Smith. The Sunday Times only decided to run with the piece once it had obtained sworn affidavits from a number of important witnesses.

Nelson said: “What shocked me was the absolute refusal to answer any of the questions – these were fair questions that a journalist is entirely justified to ask an MP.

“He was employing this person and we asked what was her job description and what was the nature of her work. Instead we got histrionics and a blank ‘if you print anything we will sue’ – which is a breach of the parliamentary rules. “What public interest is there in not answering these questions? They thought they could bury the story, but we weren’t prepared to do that.”

Nelson added: “In the face of these threats of legal action from Mr Duncan Smith, we had to put our witnesses through the most rigorous legal examination to make sure they would stand up to examination in court.”

Although Duncan Smith has said he will sue both the papers that broke the story, Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson said he doubted whether proceedings would ever start.

His paper revealed this week that BBC Newsnight reporter Michael Crick would be handing over a dossier of evidence to the Commons standards watchdog.

Crick also wrote exclusively in The Sunday Telegraph explaining his reasons for doing so.

Lawson said: “We gave Iain Duncan Smith and the Conservative Party a chance to reply and reported their side of the story as fully as we possibly could. “I would be surprised if they were advised by their solicitors that it would be sensible for him to take legal action.”

A Conservative Party spokeswoman said legal action against both newspapers would start as soon as parliamentary commissioner for standards Philip Mawer had concluded his inquiry into the affair.

By Dominic Ponsford

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