Friday, 18 January 2013
PRIME MINISTERS LIES DESTROYED SCALLYWAG
Major’s lies over torrid affair destroyed Scallywag and the brave people who published the story
Back in 2002 for most people it was the best piece of gossip in ages, John Major the grey man of politics, had had a four-year affair with his party colleague, Edwina Currie.
It destroyed the former Conservative Prime Minister’s family-man image and made a mockery of his Back to Basics anti-sleaze campaign.
But for one man, the news of John Major’s adultery holds much greater significance.
In January 1993 they published a story alleging that the then-Prime Minister was having an affair with Downing Street caterer, Clare Latimer.
Major came down hard on them, becoming only the third Prime Minister in history to take libel action against a publication.
The case was settled out of court. But it left the popular magazine destitute with catastrophic results for Robin’s family.
Forced to abandon the Scallywag project, Angus was killed in a car crash trying to raise funds for the new magazine Spiked in 1996. Spiked rumbled on and then died
Simon died in 2000, his health permanently damaged by the scandal.
Today Simon’s daughter Charlotte says: “I remember the night Scallywag folded – that was the night my dad lost all of his sparkle.
“After that happened he just didn’t think life was worth living any more. It was a real tragedy.”
Robin Wilson believes they were used as a smokescreen to conceal Major’s affair with Currie and to warn other publications to stay away from investigating the Prime Minister’s love life.
Speaking from his home in Camden, North London, he explains: “All that happened to us wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been sued.
“Angus was only in that car to raise money for an alternative to Scallywag, which wouldn’t have folded if all this hadn’t happened.
“Scallywag was Simon’s baby. He wasn’t well, but the scandal speeded up his decline. It drove him further down and made things so much worse.
“It seems like we were all pawns in a bigger game. We were part of a smokescreen to cover up what was really going on.
“Major was a man screaming blue murder saying we are underhand, low-level, gutter press, then preaching about ‘Back to Basics’, while he had been having an affair.
“Like most politicians, he’s an opportunist. He is not a man of high moral fibre and certainly not honourable.
“We were systematically squashed out of existence. David and Goliath squared up but Goliath turned out to be, not only a bully but someone who kicked us when we were down.”
Launched in October 1991 with pounds 24,000 the brothers inherited from their father, Scallywag’s blend of satirical words and artwork was selling 35,000 copies a month two years later. It was intended to be an alternative to satirical magazine Private Eye, which Regan felt had gone soft.
“Over the years it had taken off, it was standing on its own feet, it was making headway,” says Robin.
“We were doing really well, carrying stories that were great. We had scoops, we had great contacts and credit for that goes to Simon.”
A former News Of The World reporter, Simon – eight years’ Robin’s senior – saw the project as his baby. “To have his own magazine was what he always wanted,” Robin explains. “He was an old-fashioned Fleet Street, foot-in-the-door journalist.
“He drunk hard, worked hard. All his business was done in bars. He saw Scallywag as his last chance to make an impact and was revelling in it. It was lovely working together. It was great fun.”
When the Clare Latimer story came their way in January 1993, Simon was over the moon.
As Robin says: “Fleet Street had it for ages. Simon was aware of it for ages, but nobody had a way of doing it.”
The brothers had no idea just what an impact the story would make but had arranged to meet various Fleet Street editors.
“The general idea was that if we all went with the story there would be too many of us to take to court.”
In the end only Scallywag and the New Statesman ran it.
“Everybody else held their front page to wait for the reaction of the establishment. I remember thinking, ‘Whatever happens now will make or break us’.”
In the end it broke them.
“Very naively, we were of the belief that if you don’t have any money, you can’t get sued,” says Robin.
Major and Clare Latimer, 51, issued writs against them, and their publishers and distributors for libel and after months of wrangling they settled out of court, paying Major and Clare Latimer pounds 1,001 each.
Robin explains: “If he had gone to court we would have been in the position where we could cross-examine a British Prime Minister. If he had gone to court, he could have potentially perjured himself.
“But by the time it was ready for trial we’d already suffered irreparable damage.”
As many as 25,000 copies of the offending edition had to be pulped. Wholesalers and newsagents who handled the magazine had writs issued against them.
“Everyone was screaming for money. We were in debt to the printers, we got kicked out of the offices we were in, we owed thousands.
“It was a hole we couldn’t get out of. It was obvious that anything associated with Scallywag was going to inherit this mayhem from the establishment.
“We sat down and said. ‘This is it. It is beyond redemption’.
“Simon was living from day to day. That really speeded up his decline. It drove him further down and made things so much worse.”
The magazine finally closed around 1995 and Robin left to try and start up a jet-ski business in Turkey.
Two years later Angus travelled to Cyprus to raise funds for his new magazine, Spiked.
Robin says: “He went out to Cyprus to meet Asil Nadir. The deal was that Nadir, in exchange for providing his side of the Polly Peck scandal, would finance the next two editions of Spiked.
“The last contact my mum got was a very happy phone call from Angus. He’d made the deal.”
But the next morning, Angus, then 34, was killed in a car crash. Simon died in August 2000, aged just 58 after a long illness.
Then in 2002 Robin went to talk with lawyers to decide whether he could afford to pursue a claim to recover costs from Major.
“I just wish Angus and Simon, wherever they are now, were here to see us vindicated.” he said,
But the costs of the action were just too high.