Isabel Oakeshott: Vicky Pryce double-crossed me

The Sunday Times journalist reveals her side of the discussions which led to the conviction of Chris Huhne and his ex-wife for perverting the course of justice.

Isabel Oakeshott, the Sunday Times journalist who convinced Vicky Pryce to go on the record about taking Chris Huhne's speeding points, has today published her side of the story. 

Oakeshott advised Pryce to record her ex-husband discussing the points, and their lengthy email correspondence was revealed in the trial which saw Pryce convicted of perverting the course of justice. 

The email trail (which can be read in full here) is a must-read for press commentators and journalism students. It provides a rare real-life example of a senior journalist negotiating with a reluctant source to agree to publication.

Oakeshott's piece in the News Review (£) adds some fascinating detail. She was clearly well aware of Pryce's motivation in speaking to her:

It was now clear to me that Vicky had an agenda: she was out to get Chris Huhne. She didn’t need to spell it out: her willingness to show me confidential documents that mighthave revealed something compromising showed she wanted to do him damage. The more he compounded her misery by trying to pare down her divorce settlement, the more dangerous to him she was becoming.

In the emails, Pryce writes: "I just want the story out there so he has to resign." Both she and Oakeshott refer regularly to the story bringing Huhne down, or proving "fatal".

Initially, Oakeshott had convinced Pryce not to go to the Mail on Sunday, which had been chasing the story. In the emails, she refers to it as a "fairly downmarket" newspaper, and says it would seem "tawdry" to go there. She argues it would look mercenary for Pryce to accept money for the story: a reason to go with the Sunday Times, which would not pay her.

After the first story Oakeshott had negotiated with Pryce appeared in the Sunday Times - a piece which referred only to "someone" taking Huhne's points - Pryce suddenly drops out of contact with the journalist. 

That weekend I found out why: she had double-crossed me. While I was busy protecting her identity, she had been busy revealing all to a rival newspaper, The Mail on Sunday.

In Oakeshott's view, dallying with both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers was part of what led to Pryce's downfall. She had tried to get Pryce to agree to a follow-up in the Sunday Times, telling her: "I need your help. Please don't tell me what I can't write. Tell me what I CAN write."

The other controversial aspect of the case tackled by Oakeshott in her piece is News International's decision to hand over the "confidential" agreement Pryce had signed to the court, along with copies of their emails.

Handing over lengthy private email correspondence between myself and Vicky was an entirely different matter, however. I was horrified when it was requested by the police. While I do not believe those messages contained anything unprofessional, I would have chosen every word carefully if I’d known it would be for public consumption. The Sunday Times put up a vigorous fight in court. But eventually we were forced by a judge to give up the correspondence, along with copies of our written agreement with Vicky.

That decision will keep journalism ethics classes in material for years. Should Oakeshott and the Sunday Times have refused to reveal their source? Or was the public interest greater in them revealing it, and both Huhne and Pryce being convicted of their crime?

Vicky Pryce. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.