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Is Oakeshott treading on thin legal ice?

The latest gossip from Westminster and Fleet Street

Isabelle Oakeshott - Credit: BBC

Isabel Oakeshott’s coyness about how much money she made out of collaborating with Matt Hancock on The Pandemic Diaries may well be because she is acutely aware she’s treading on thin legal ice.

“She is going for a public interest defence in her decision to belatedly leak 100,000 WhatsApp messages that Hancock entrusted to her to the Daily Telegraph, but this could fail if it could be shown her real motivation was money,” one leading media barrister tells me. “Hancock had a non-disclosure agreement in place with Oakeshott, but, even without it, he would have what might be described as a reasonable expectation of confidentiality in his dealings with Oakeshott, who, as I understand it, made the initial approach to him. Hancock’s line is that there is no public interest case since all the material used for the book was given to the Covid inquiry.”

Hancock has messaged Oakeshott to say what she did was “a big mistake,” but he has not yet decided about whether to sue her. He has no shortage of people goading him on. Executives at the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, incandescent that Oakeshott chose not to leak the WhatsApp messages to them after they had paid out £48,000 to serialise the book, ran a piece more or less telling Hancock to sue her for her “outrageous” behaviour.

The paper’s grandee Paul Dacre is said to be feeling particularly hurt since he prides himself on his close friendship with Lord Ashcroft, the owner of her publisher, Biteback.

Oakeshott affected high dudgeon at questions from fellow journalists about the financial arrangements she had with Hancock over The Pandemic Diaries, even asserting in a radio interview that she wasn’t paid a penny for working on the book. She was, however, quick to add she did get a slice of the serialisation fee from the Mail newspapers.

I understand she secured an unusually generous 50-50 deal with Hancock for ongoing royalties for the book from Biteback. Ashcroft sometimes appears to use Biteback as a vehicle of revenge, with his book, for instance, about David Cameron – another Oakeshott special – that alleged he’d had carnal relations with a pig.

Of what the Telegraph may or may not have paid her, Oakeshott drew a distinction in her media interviews between the WhatsApp messages and her wider work for the paper. “They did not pay me for the messages,” she said. “I’ve been helping the Daily Telegraph with the investigation, you’ll see that I’ve been writing stories for the Daily Telegraph.”

Oakeshott has said she’s “quite good” with money and well she might. Latest accounts for her TV firm Diamond Ink show that it has £231,000 in accumulated earnings, and the company owns a £405,000 three-bedroom penthouse flat with sea views on the Isle of Wight. She also has a half share of her former marital home in leafy Chipping Norton for which £1m was paid in 2013.

Sales for The Pandemic Diaries are, meanwhile, said to be modest – they always are for political books – with Ashcroft absorbing accumulated losses at Biteback of £3.4m.

Rishi Sunak had to more or less be dragged kicking and screaming to Egypt for the Cop27 climate summit – he’d initially said he was too busy to attend – and since then the British prime minister has all but given up even pretending to be a presence on the world stage at all, still less believing “Global Britain” was anything more than an empty slogan.

“We call him the ‘homeboy’ in Whitehall as he’s reluctant ever to go anywhere,” says my man in Downing Street. “This may be because he’s worried about what plots will be hatched in his absence, an awareness of what other world leaders think about him and Brexit, or simply self-consciousness about his height as he always looks like a character in Land of the Giants in the group photos of world leaders.”

So far this year Sunak has made only one overseas trip – for the security conference in Munich last month – and since he became PM last October, apart from Cop27 and the obligatory photocall in Ukraine with Volodymyr Zelenskiy, he has visited only Indonesia for the G20, Latvia for a Joint Expeditionary Leaders’ Summit, and Estonia for another photocall with British troops.

During her three years in Downing Street, Theresa May made 73 trips to 33 countries and Boris Johnson notched up 26 trips to 18 countries during his innings. Even Liz Truss, during her 44 days in office, managed to cram in two trips, to New York City and Prague.

Mandrake noted last month the problems that Boris Johnson fanzine the Daily Mail was having difficulty finding Tory MPs to say on the record that he should come back as PM. The style of the paper is to quote unidentified “friends” of Johnson and there was predictably no shortage of them over the weekend claiming that he was more sinned against than sinning over the findings of the Partygate inquiry.

Johnson’s “friends” would, however, have more authority if they talked like real people. The Mail quoted one “friend” as saying: “This is a political show trial with an outrageous level of bias that would make Stalin blush.’” Another “friend,” also prone to talking in the same absurd tabloidese, allegedly said: “We thought we were working with Sue Gray but it turns out she’s Sue the Socialist – Sue Red.”

Mandrake challenges the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, whenever they write about Johnson from now on, only to quote real people, willing to talk on the record.

The funeral of the journalist and author Peter Millar at St James’ Church, Bermondsey, south London, saw a reunion of virtually the entire newsroom of the European, the short-lived paper Robert Maxwell launched in 1990 and that necessitates the “new” in the title of this unrelated one.

Millar, who was the European’s deputy editor, was remembered fondly for his passionate belief in the EU. Poignantly, among those who attended was Martin Ivens, whom Millar never forgave for giving into his proprietor Rupert Murdoch’s demand to throw the Sunday Times – during his period as editor – behind Brexit. Millar at least got in the last word. The closing music to the service was Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the anthem of Europe.

Long-suffering readers of the Times and Sunday Times reacted with dismay to the papers’ “exclusive” serialisation of Paris Hilton’s memoirs. Their online comments ranged from “this should be in Hello! magazine” to “what bilge”, and from “has the Times become the Sun?” to “I thought my subscription was to the Times not some grubby tabloid”.

So why did the two Rupert Murdoch papers choose to inflict the memoirs of the daffy socialite hotel heiress on them? The clue was in the small print beneath the humongous expanses of text where it stated the book was published by an outfit called HQ. That’s the name of a new HarperCollins imprint – a book company also part of the Murdoch empire. My insider tells me Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News UK, “forced the book” upon the editors of both titles.

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