TV War Reporter Tries to Rescue British Politics

White-suited Martin Bell wages campaign against 'sleaze' of Conservative Party

Britain's best-known war correspondent has hung up his flak jacket and entered the battlefield of his country's May 1 general election.

Martin Bell, veteran TV reporter of wars in Vietnam, the Gulf, Angola, and most recently Bosnia, has quit the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) after 35 years and is waging a single-issue campaign against "sleaze" (political corruption).

Campaigning in his trademark white suit and "lucky" green socks, he describes himself as "a founder-member of the get- something-done club" and this week pledged to "do what I can to clean up British politics."

Mr. Bell's new war zone is the parliamentary constituency of Tatton, in the west of England. His opponent is current Member of Parliament Neil Hamilton, who is accused of (but strenuously denies) accepting bribes. Mr. Hamilton won his seat in Parliament during the last general election with a large majority.

An opportunity for the opposition

Before Bell decided to contest Tatton, the opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates agreed to withdraw if an independent antisleaze candidate entered the race. Bell then decided to dive in and fight Hamilton for the Tatton seat in a head-to-head confrontation. Such an entry into the general election, virtually by invitation of opposition parties, is thought to be without precedent in British politics.

Labour opposition leader Tony Blair says Bell will have the backing of Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Tatton. Polls taken locally indicate that the reporter can count on the bulk of opposition party votes and is likely to receive considerable support from disenchanted Conservatives.

He says he hoped at first that his decision to enter the race would "flush Hamilton out" and force him to withdraw. Hamilton, however, refused to budge and now swears: "I will hold Tatton handsomely."

Political analyst Peter Riddell says the entry of Bell "has great significance far beyond the Tatton constituency." The sleaze issue, he says, "has plagued Prime Minister John Major and his government for the last three years."

Several Conservative ministers and members of Parliament have been forced to resign after charges of corruption.

Last year, Hamilton quit his post as trade minister after allegations that he had had improper dealings with political lobbyists and had accepted favors from Mohammed el-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, London's famous department store.

Since general election campaigning began last month, Mr. Major and his ministers have struggled to shift the focus from sleaze to other issues, but without much success.

Earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine urged Hamilton to withdraw from the race in the interests of the Conservative Party. But he refused and later received the backing of the Conservative committee in his local constituency.

The failure to persuade Hamilton to withdraw is seen by analysts as a sign of Major's lack of political authority. But Major insists that in the Conservative Party local committees decide on candidates.

Mr. Riddell notes that Bell's campaign in Tatton "will keep sleaze on the election agenda, and thus infuriate and frustrate the Conservatives."

Political ambush

Bell has already discovered that exchanging a war zone for a political battleground can be hazardous.

When he traveled to the Tatton constituency Tuesday, he found Hamilton and his wife, Christine, waiting for him. In what the reporter called "an ambush," the couple walked up to him in a public park and, with reporters present, berated him for daring to enter the campaign.

"In this country a man is innocent until proved guilty," Hamilton shouted. His wife demanded to know what gave Bell the right to "accuse Neil of doing wrong."

Later, Bell, who had looked ruffled under fire, said: "After this, I really have the personal motivation to see things through." At first, he had taken unpaid leave from the BBC. But after his personal encounter with the Hamiltons he telephoned his editor in London and resigned.

Bell has set up a makeshift campaign headquarters at a local hotel and has begun door-to-door campaigning in the well-heeled streets of Tatton. His journalist daughter, Melissa, is his press officer. Bell also has the support of David Cornwell, better known as the spy novelist John le Carr, who says "he stands for the qualities I most admire in an Englishman."

David McNeil, a former BBC correspondent who worked with Bell in Washington, calls him "a moral man" who "plays everything straight."

To ram home his anticorruption theme, Bell has offered journalists copies of his bank statements going back several years. He admits that his current bank balance is under 6,000 ($9,600). Demonstrating that he was fast learning the political arts, Bell called reporters and press photographers Wednesday to watch him sign a check to pay his hotel bill - a jab at Hamilton, who admits accepting free accommodation at Mr. Fayed's Ritz hotel in Paris.

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