Papers lost 'Labour sleaze' scoop by checking facts

Observer and MoS revealed Desmond’s £100,000 donation to Labour

The exclusivity of Mail on Sunday and Observer investigations into the £100,000 donation to the Labour Party from Express Newspapers’ boss Richard Desmond was blown the moment their check-calls were put in on Saturday morning.

By mid-afternoon, calls from a spate of other nationals were being fielded by Desmond’s organisation after what appeared to be deliberate leaking to limit the damage to the Government.  Most of the Sundays had the story.

Only last week, BBC political editor Andrew Marr complained in his Daily Telegraph Notebook that, when he went to check his scoop about the lobby being replaced with more open press conferences with Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s spokesman immediately summoned lobby journalists and briefed them.

"He candidly admitted to my newspaper colleague that he had ‘shafted’ us," wrote Marr, explaining the risk journalists take when they check stories to make sure they are right.

The MoS called Labour HQ about the story at 9am and The Observer not much later. Thereafter, their journalists had to fume as the rest of the press was handed the story on a plate.

Chief investigative reporter Jason Lewis and political editor Simon Walters, who wrote the MoS story, had been working on the story of the six-week gap in Labour Party accounts since early last month.

Both papers pretty quickly realised there had been a "ring round" of the political editors because they had been pushing Labour on the idea that the donation had been covered up.

Some of the other political editors went as far as to say: "We got this from the most impeccable political source there is." It was generally acknowledged it had been put around "to screw the MoS", which has not had the happiest relationship with No.10.

A senior industry source said: "It is outrageous. They are very quick to say we don’t go to them and give them enough time to respond to stories. Yet when we do, they tell everyone else about it. You just can’t trust them any more. What you have to do is just say, ‘We are not going to go to you guys’."

The MoS and Daily Mail were further hamstrung in not being able to tell their readers exactly why it was a "scandal" for Labour to accept money from Desmond. The truce between Associated Newspapers and Express Newspapers meant the Mails could not mention that Desmond makes his money from pornography.

But a more phlegmatic view came from a senior Associated journalist who said: "It’s a story that is damaging to Labour and they will try to do whatever they think they can do to lay off the damage. If they think that ringing other papers is the best way to limit the damage, well, fine," he said.

"Some journalists have the idea that if you ring No.10 or wherever with a story that is going to embarrass them, they have a debt of honour to leave it as your exclusive. I have a slight difficulty with that."

A spokesman for Desmond said: "The donation was made in a fully transparent manner and will appear in the Northern & Shell annual accounts later this year."

By Jean Morgan

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