Image of Britain's Conservative Party marred by a new scandal

The Conservative government's image has been dented by the kind of political sex scandal that periodically afflicts the Conservative Party -- and which it doesn't need in the run-up to an election. As deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, best-selling novelist Jeffrey Archer could have expected to play a prominent role in an election campaign, widely tipped to come up in the next year.

But Mr. Archer had no alternative but to step down when the sensational mass circulation Sunday newspaper, News of the World, photographed a middleman making a 2,000 ($2,850) payoff to a prostitute at Victoria railway station in London. The woman was reportedly being paid by Archer to leave the country after the News of the World printed a recorded phone conversation between Archer and the prostitute. Archer claims never to have met her.

The trap set by the News of the World has infuriated many politicians, unhappy about the way in which the news media operate in Britain.

Recently, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) agreed to pay hefty damages for libeling two Conservative members of Parliament who had been identified as ``fascists'' on a prominent news program. The Board of Government at the BBC ordered its management to make the out-of-court settlement. It left some journalists on the BBC feeling that the corporation had knuckled under political pressure.

Archer's resignation is a personal blow to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who appointed him. It was symptomatic of Mrs. Thatcher's acute sense of the importance of the media that some of her more recent appointments -- such as Transport Secretary John Moore, Employment Secretary Kenneth Clarke, and Archer -- were of politicians who come across the television screen as young, vigorous, and photogenic presenters of the government's message.

Archer's boyish good looks, athletic background (he is a former international track star), and success as a novelist, made him a well-known figure on morning TV shows. ``First Among Equals,'' his story of four newly elected parliamentarians vying for the premiership, is currently enjoying a huge success as a television series.

His ``folly,'' as he calls it, confirms an impression among members of his own party that Archer was more adept at turning out popular novels than he was at being a party strategist. His earlier gaffes included a remark that made his colleagues wince: that no government could expect or deserve to be returned to power with high unemployment.

But the way the News of the World incriminated Archer (they taped his phone conversations and took pictures of the payoffs for their front page) can only deepen the growing hostility between government and media.

The BBC, in particular, has become a favorite whipping boy of the Conservatives. Conservatives have long felt that the Beeb, as this world-famous institution is popularly known here, has a decided anti-Conservative bias both at home and abroad.

At this month's Conservative Party conference, party Chairman Norman Tebbit indicated that the gloves were on when he said the party had prepared a file alleging political bias by the BBC in its coverage of the US raid on Libya. The conference was scarcely over when the BBC agreed out-of-court to pay damages for libeling two Conservative members of Parliament (Neil Hamilton and Gerald Howarth). The MPs who had charged they were victims of a BBC ``witch hunt'' were depicted as belonging to extreme racist, Nazi, and fascist groups in a segment called ``Maggie's Militant Tendency'' of the BBC's ``Panorama'' news magazine program back in 1984.

In addition to a full apology, the BBC's costs, including its own defense, were $702 million. The corporation had previously made an out-of-court settlement with two other Conservative MPs (Roger Moate and Harvey Proctor) on similar accusations.

A well-known news broadcaster says privately that the libel case was so damaging to the BBC, he doubts whether the normally highly praised Panorama program will survive.

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