The abject surrender of Neil Hamilton, the 'envelope man' who changed the law so that he could sue the Guardian for libel, deprived the nation of an exhilarating and informative court case. When the Guardian alleged that Hamilton, Tory MP for Tatton, had taken money from Mohammed AI Fayed, chairman of Harrods to lobby Parliament against a Department of Trade inquiry which eventually denounced Fayed as a liar, the cocky MP announced that he was at last going to get even with the liberal press. He sued for libel, but the case ran into the sand because any allegation in court of corruption against an MP is technically a breach of Parliamentary privilege. Hamilton untied that knot at once. Supported by Lady Thatcher, Lord Archer and the entire Parliamentary Tory Party, he conspired to force through Parliament an amendment to the Defamation Act which allows MPs to waive their privilege in order to sue for libel. Backed by his new law, Hamilton charged back into court and, a few months later, hit more solid buffers: the facts. The Guardian insisted on discovery of all relevant documents from the Government and the Tory Party. A huge flow of paper about Hamilton and his paymaster/co-plaintiff, the lobbyist Ian Greer, emerged for the first time. The decisive revelation was a tape-recorded conversation between Hamilton and the First Secretary to the Treasury, Michael Heseltine, in which Hamilton denied any 'financial relationship' with Ian Greer. Greer knew he had paid, and realised his fellow plaintive would be exposed in court as a liar. He told Hamilton he wanted to fight the case separately, with a new set of lawyers. The unity of the plaintiffs was broken, and the towel, plus a £15,000 contribution to the Guardian's costs, was thrown sullenly into the ring.
LRB 17 October 1996 | PDF Download