The colonel, the PR man and the MP

November 18, 1994

In the current furore over the outside interests of Members of Parliament, and in particular over their connections with lobbying firms, it is worth recalling that it was Colonel Papadopoulos, the leader of the Greek junta that misruled Greece between 1967 and 1974, who gave a powerful boost to the process which culminated in the establishment in 1974 of the Register of Members' Interests . His, albeit inadvertent, contribution came about when it was revealed that a public relations firm employed by the Greek Colonels had retained a Labour MP to act as a lobbyist.

From the moment they seized power in April 1967 the Colonels had problems with their image abroad. To their unbelievably crass behaviour were added ugly rumours of the torture of political prisoners. Within a few months of the coup some half a dozen British PR firms were offering to spruce up the junta's battered image.

The successful bidder was Maurice Fraser and Associates, which engaged in a vigorous and initially highly successful campaign on behalf of the junta. Fraser's first major coup was the organisation in April 1968, the first anniversary of the military take-over, of a visit to Greece by an all-party group of MPs, some of whom were accompanied by their wives. The group consisted of Gordon Bagier (Lab), W. E. Garrett (Lab), Anthony Buck (Con), David Webster (Con) and Russell Johnston (Lib). The visit got off to a sticky start when they were attacked in the censored Greek press as "leftist agents" and supporters of gay rights (the Colonels were obsessively homophobic), but their concluding press conference must have been music to the Colonels' ears. For the MPs were prepared to accept Papadopoulos's word of honour as a "soldier and an officer" that the junta intended to move towards democratic government. They were opposed to attempts to isolate the regime economically and on the highly charged question of torture they felt that even if there might have been isolated cases, particularly in the early days, there had been "no direction of cruelty from the top". They had received assurances that cases of "individual zeal" by junior officers would be severely dealt with. Subsequently the Commission of Human Rights of the Council of Europe demonstrated that torture was routinely employed as an instrument of government.

On his return Russell Johnston in an article for The Guardian (in which he made clear that his visit had been at the junta's expense), said that the impressions that he had formed "ran contrary to the whole tenor of reporting in the British press since the coup". He had found much evidence of support for the military regime among the Greeks he had spoken to, (who had included the hotel doorman and two souvenir touts). Finding Brigadier Vellianitis, "head of security", to be an "impressive witness", he believed that the Colonels had not seized power to further their own interests but because they wished to forestall a breakdown of government. Overall he concluded that stories of unrelieved tyranny and repression were grossly exaggerated: "It is not a harsh regime".

In September 1968, at the time of the referendum on the Colonels' fig-leaf constitution, MPs descended on Greece in droves, some sponsored by Maurice Fraser and Associates, some by the Press Ministry. But what had been a highly successful PR campaign was soon to be derailed by the leaking to The Sunday Times of Fraser's fifth report to Papadopoulos. When Fraser on September 21 obtained an injunction against publishing the report hours before the presses were due to roll, what might have been a relatively minor story was immediately transformed into a cause cel bre of major dimensions.

The Sunday Times contested the injunction as a threat to press freedom, but the judge, Mr Justice Crichton, fearing that the documents had been surreptitiously and improperly obtained, continued the injunction. The paper immediately appealed against the decision and three Appeal Court judges were asked to cut short their vacation to hear the appeal. Meanwhile, the Greek Embassy in London announced that Fraser's contract would not be renewed when it expired in December.

Before the appeal could be heard, however, the Labour MP Ivor Richard, leaked the most explosive item in the Greek version of the report in the Observer, namely that among the employees of Maurice Fraser and Associates was an MP "working behind the scenes with the object of influencing other British MPs". His identity had to be protected but his name was available to Colonel Papadopoulos. Richard called for the appointment of a select committee to investigate the connection of Maurice Fraser with members of parliament.

At the Appeal Court hearing, counsel for The Sunday Times argued that it was being constrained by issues of breach of confidence and copyright from its inherent right to "publish and be damned". On October 3 the Appeal Court lifted the injunction, ruling that, while Fraser had a contractual obligation to the Greek government, that government had no corresponding obligation of confidence towards him. The junta alone had the locus standi to complain of publication and it had not done so. The Sunday Times should be free to publish, taking upon itself the risk of possible actions for libel, breach of copyright or confidence.

The Sunday Times duly published a lengthy investigation of Fraser's activities, based on the fifth report, while The Sunday Telegraph, in a spoiling move, printed on the same day, October 6, the English original of the report. This referred to an unnamed British MP working as a "lobbiest" (sic) and gave details of myriad other activities designed to put the best possible gloss on the Greek regime. Inter alia, Fraser had approached the historian Hugh Trevor Roper to write a contemporary history of Greece, but this was turned down. Soon after publication of the report Maurice Fraser announced his intention to resign from the Institute of Public Relations.

It was not until some months later that the identity of the MP/lobbyist was revealed. In February 1969 an investigation into Fraser's activities by Thames Television's This Week programme was temporarily halted when Fraser issued a writ alleging libel against The Sunday Times. After discussions with the IBA, a truncated version of the programme was broadcast, from which the naming of the mysterious MP by a former employee of Fraser had been excised. The programme none the less made it clear that This Week had evidence of a connection between Fraser and a specific MP.

Immediately the programme had been broadcast, Gordon Bagier, after speaking to the Labour chief whip, issued a statement in which he admitted to having been a salaried consultant to Maurice Fraser and Associates but denied having promoted the interests of the Greek junta in the House of Commons. At the same time Fraser denied that Bagier had ever been in the pay of the Greek government.

By now the momentum for some kind of enquiry into MPs' outside interests was unstoppable and shortly afterwards Harold Wilson recommended the setting up of a select committee to enquire into the whole matter. The committee's report was something of a damp squib. While forbidding the advocacy of "any bill, motion, matter or cause for a fee, payment, retainer or reward, direct or indirect", it came down against the idea of a register, open to public inspection. The Commons did not, in fact, finally agree to the establishment of a Register of Members' Interests until 1974, in the wake of revelations of links between MPs and the architect John Poulson. Undoubtedly, however, the Bagier affair had contributed powerfully to making the case for such a register irresistible.

Few military usurpers are ever punished for their presumption. Colonel Papadopoulos is an exception. Some 20 years after the downfall of the junta he is still in jail. No doubt he consoles himself with the fact that he remains president for life of the Association of Greek Shipowners. He may also derive some comfort from the fact that the furore surrounding the activities of his PR man made some modest contribution towards cleaning up British political life, even if it has taken all of 25 years for MPs to contemplate serious measures to deal with the relations between themselves and lobbying firms.

Richard Clogg is an associate fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, and professor of modern Balkan history at the University of London.

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