Lord Ashcroft shifts ground over Tom Baldwin affair

Backtracks on "promise" to publish evidence.

As the phone-hacking scandal continues to steamroller all before it there is a new and interesting intervention today from Lord Ashcroft on his own Conservative Home website.

Last week Ashcroft made a series of allegations on Conservative Home against Tom Baldwin, Ed Miliband's strategy director, dating back to Baldwin's time as a journalist for the Times.

In his initial post Ashcroft claimed that Baldwin had "commissioned" a private investigator named Gavin Sangfield to gain access to his (Ashcroft's) private financial details, including his bank account, through a practice known as "blagging".

According to Ashcroft

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.

Baldwin's commissioning of these activities was, according to Lord Ashcroft, "an infringement of the law".

However in today's post Lord Ashcroft appears to be attempting to subtly shift his ground. This morning, rather than charge Baldwin with "commissioning" Sangfield, Ashcroft instead alleges:

Mr Baldwin denied to his new boss that he had commissioned a private investigator to target me. But he has not denied that the Times commissioned Mr Singfield. Nor has he denied that he worked with the private investigator. Nor that he was responsible for handling the unlawfully acquired material.

What's also worth noting is that on Monday the Daily Telegraph reported that, "A source close to Lord Ashcroft, a leading Tory donor, said he planned to publish evidence to back his claims 'within days'." However, in today's post Ashcroft writes,

I am now hopeful that the Metropolitan Police, having admitted at the weekend that its probe into hacking allegations was inadequate, will now carry out a new inquiry into the activities of the "blaggers" who targeted me, [Gordon] Brown and others. For the moment, I am not publishing documents in my possession - obtained perfectly legitimately, by the way -- because I do not wish to jeopardise what I now hope will be a renewed attempt by the police to bring Mr Baldwin in front of a criminal court.

Although Tom Baldwin has not responded publicly to the allegations, Ed Miliband said on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, "People are trying to make a comparison between Andy Coulson, who resigned from the News of the World over phone hacking of the Royal family, and Tom Baldwin, who works for me. I think this is ridiculous."

He added, "Tom Baldwin was engaged in the Times newspaper, including an investigation of Michael Ashcroft, about whom there was massive public interest."

And asked about the specific allegations made by Lord Ashcroft, he said: "Tom Baldwin absolutely denies this. And I have to say that this is pretty desperate stuff because the Prime Minister must answer the real questions at the heart of this affair - about his error of judgment in hiring Andy Coulson and the mounting evidence there now is about the warnings that were given to him before he brought Andy Coulson into the heart of the Government machine."

This afternoon's debate on phone hacking and the BSkyB takeover should be one to watch.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.