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British media stay on Labor scandal

March 07, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The British media fought off court-ordered censorship Tuesday to report allegations that the Labor government was advised to doctor its account of events surrounding the alleged trading of peerages for campaign loans.

The revelation, which came amid intense police efforts to halt publication or broadcast of the latest leaks, suggests that investigators are examining whether aides and advisors to Prime Minister Tony Blair engaged in obstruction of justice in connection with the long-running inquiry.

But whether there's a smoking gun, or just smoke, remains uncertain. No document was reproduced or directly quoted by any media outlet.

The media reports followed an extraordinary battle between editors and government attorneys over reporting on the leaked document. Metropolitan Police investigators had obtained court orders over the weekend to block publication or broadcast, arguing that such action could "undermine the investigation."

But the floodgates opened Tuesday after the Guardian newspaper started its presses before a formal injunction could be obtained -- freeing the BBC, which had been the subject of an earlier court order, and the Sun tabloid, which said it had also been "gagged," to unload their reports.

Blair's official spokesman denounced the leaks as "inaccurate" but declined to clarify. The lawyer for Michael Levy, the Labor Party's chief fundraiser who is said to have proposed to "shape the evidence" presented in the inquiry, issued a vociferous denial.

"The current round of articles in the media, which are said to be based on leaked material under consideration by police, are partial, contradictory, confused and inaccurate," said Levy's attorney, Neil O'May.

"There has been a regular stream of leaks to the media during this yearlong investigation, all of which have presented a prejudiced and distorted view," the attorney's statement added. "Cumulatively, these leaks and reports have created a climate which does not allow for any fair assessment of the investigation."

The inquiry, which has beset the waning months of Blair's administration, began as an attempt to find out whether Labor Party officials promised campaign donors peerages, or noble titles, for contributions or loans. The investigation has expanded to include donations and loans to other major political parties.

As several senior aides in the Blair camp have been questioned or briefly arrested in recent months, the inquiry has shifted to possible obstruction of justice, and the purported existence of e-mails within Downing Street that might shed light on the Blair government's actions.

Whether the alleged e-mail that was the subject of news reports Tuesday actually exists is unclear. Some accounts suggested that it was not an e-mail, but a "document," and there were other slight contradictions among the reports.

Still, the essence of the communication was the same: that Blair's chief of government relations, Ruth Turner, allegedly expressed concern that Levy had urged her to shape or modify the information she was giving to Scotland Yard in connection with the investigation.

The BBC said Turner was "concerned a version of events put to her by Lord Levy was untrue" with respect to Levy's "account of his role in drawing up the Honors List."

The broadcaster said it had not seen the document but had been told about it by more than one source.

Turner has been questioned three times by police, including when she was arrested in January, after which she was released without charge.

Levy, a former tennis partner of Blair who was made a baron after Labor's landslide election victory in 1997, has been arrested twice and released with no charges filed. He has been Blair's personal envoy to the Middle East since 2002.

Blair has been questioned twice, but investigators said it was not "under caution," meaning he was interviewed as a witness, not a suspect.

Though peerages historically have been handed out as political favors, the current inquiry is looking at possible connections between promises of honors and about $9 million in campaign loans to the Labor Party before the 2005 elections. Since then, the Labor Party has revealed that it received more than $25 million in previously undisclosed loans before the balloting.

Blair's official spokesman broke the government's official no-comment policy Monday by denying that Downing Street was the source of the leaks.

The spokesman, who speaks under standard condition of anonymity, said the prime minister's office could not have been the source of the leaks because they included material that was "fundamentally incorrect."

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