Lord Ashcroft, KCMG.
Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, has said that Rebekah Brooks, the former News of the World editor, must “examine her conscience” and “consider her position” over claims that private detectives who were in the employ of the paper at that time they broke the law. Mr Miliband’s sentiment is one with which no reasonable person could disagree.
Might I perhaps suggest though that Mr Miliband delivers similar advice to all those in public life who are former News International journalists and who themselves have been involved in the commissioning of unlawful acts in pursuit of stories.
In fact, the Labour leader need look no further than his own office, for there sits Tom Baldwin who, unusual recreational habits notwithstanding, was employed by News International for more than a decade prior to his appointment as Mr Miliband’s Director of Communications, and whose hands are far from clean.
I know of a number of infringements of the law of which Mr Baldwin has been guilty but, for the purposes of this blog, I will limit consideration to the commissioning of a private detective to break into a bank account. This took place in 1999, when Mr Baldwin was a senior journalist at The Times, News International’s flagship daily, a position he held until his appointment by Mr Miliband.
In recent weeks, much has been heard of “hacking”. What Mr Baldwin commissioned in this case was a different technique known as "blagging". And he went to a man who is known in the seedy world he inhabits to be one of the best blaggers around. His name is Gavin Singfield.
I should explain the background to this. Well over a decade ago, I was being targeted by The Times, when it was openly pro-Labour, because I was Treasurer of the Conservative Party under William Hague’s leadership. They were desperate to prove, in their language, that I was “bankrolling” the party.
The hacking of phones relies upon those with criminal intent being able to deal with corrupt providers of information. Everyone involved in that process is guilty. However, blaggers do not rely upon the corrupt. Worse, they rely upon the innocent to do their bidding, often in the misguided belief that those they blag are helping a fellow human being who is in need.
Mr Singfield was charged by Mr Baldwin and his colleagues with accessing information from a bank account held at the Drummonds branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland in Charing Cross Road, London. The bank account from which Mr Baldwin sought information belonged to the Conservative Party, and his interest was confined to payments – perfectly legal ones – which I had made to that account.
Mr Singfield was set to work. He did some research and assembled a body of readily-available information, with which he then became familiar. Having learned his script, as it were, in a series of bogus telephone calls to the bank, he then augmented his knowledge. He did this by pretending to be someone else, and asking his victims each time only for a modest amount of additional information; not more in fact than was reasonable given the information which was at his disposal.
The additional pieces of information thus woven into his knowledge base, he was able to press his inquiries a little further until, at last, he was able to check details of the very credits which he had been commissioned to discover.
Mr Singfield reported this information to Mr Baldwin, who then sat on it for several months, waiting for as he saw it the right time to make it public. When he spotted his moment in November of 1999, he then – in order to cover his own tracks – implicated others in his criminality by sharing the stolen information with journalists from two other national newspapers.
The information about the extent of my perfectly-legitimate financial support for the Conservative Party was then published simultaneously in three national newspapers.
The theft of information was reported to the police by the Conservative Party, and there was a half-hearted investigation. However, I believe that no-one spoke to either Mr Baldwin or Mr Singfield about these events at that time.
Given the news that proper enquiries are now to be made into News International’s behaviour, I am happy to help those who are carrying out those inquiries. As Mr Baldwin knows only too well, he has no monopoly when it comes to sitting on “interesting” information.
Perhaps it will only be a matter of time before Mr Baldwin is, to paraphrase his current boss’s words, “examining his conscience” and “considering his position”. And perhaps Mr Miliband will be questioning his own wisdom in employing a man with quite such a reprehensible past.
This and other stories about Baldwin can be found in my book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times which can be read on www.lordashcroft.com.