When a tabloid reporter was sent on a covert assignment to Northern Cyprus nearly 20 years ago he stumbled on a great story about financial corruption, violence and decapitated birds. Finally he can tell it
Almost 20 years ago, when I was a young(ish) reporter on A Certain Tabloid Newspaper, I received one of the more curious of the many briefings I have heard during my career in journalism.
Taking me to one side in the newsroom and casting a glance over his shoulder, the news editor told me, sotto voce: “Ian, get yourself to Northern Cyprus. When you get there, don’t do anything. Don’t talk to anybody. Do nothing. Zilch. I’ll try to get you back by the weekend.”
It was Tuesday morning.
Clearly this escapade had something to do with Asil Nadir, the tycoon who had a short time before fled to Northern Cyprus in order to escape multimillion-pound theft charges following the collapse of his FTSE 100 conglomerate, Polly Peck. But what was it all about, exactly?
“Sorry mate,” said the news editor. “I can’t tell you.”
I thought this was ludicrous, and eventually the news editor agreed to enlighten me a little. The chairman of the newspaper, he said, had told the editor that he had discovered that Asil was doing some sort of deal with the British government, one that would allow him to return to the UK. And the chairman was rather proud of this exclusive tip.
The only problem was that he was completely wrong. The crime reporter at The Certain Tabloid had called the Serious Fraud Office, who assured him there was no such deal. The home affairs correspondent had telephoned the home secretary, Michael Howard, who told him it was balderdash. “But the chairman keeps demanding to know who we’ve got in Northern Cyprus, checking out his tip. The editor’s told him you’re already there. So you’d better get cracking!”
In those days, travelling to Northern Cyprus, a self-declared state that was recognised by few other governments, and hence had no extradition treaties, involved flying first to Turkey, where there was some jiggery-pokery before the aircraft could take off again. Turkish border guards would come on to the aircraft and check the passports of all the passengers; the pilot would then announce that the aircraft was now controlled by a different company, and had a different flight number, and off we would fly to Kyrenia on the island’s north coast.
Arriving late that evening I checked into a hotel and, unable to resist the temptation to ignore my instructions, immediately rang an acquaintance who worked for Nadir. I wanted to check the lie of the land. There must be some sort of story here?
My acquaintance suggested that I might move next day to the Jasmine Court, a luxury beachside hotel owned by Nadir, which would be much more comfortable. On arrival, the hotel appeared deserted but for a small army of smiling staff, who seemed to know all about me and about my mission. I was provided with a poolside suite at a ridiculously low price. I then drove to Nadir’s home a few miles down the coast at Lapta.
The entrance to this luxurious bolthole was guarded by a couple of young men sitting inside a gatehouse that resembled nothing so much as a small gun emplacement, with a narrow slit instead of a window. They convinced me that the boss wasn’t at home, so I set off to find him in Lefkosa, as the northern section of divided Nicosia is known.
Nadir’s suite of offices were on the second floor of a small block, and could be accessed only by a very small lift. His secretary made clear that he was too busy to see me, so I asked if I could wait for him on a sofa just outside the door to his office. And there I sat, for hour after hour. It was all very cordial, with the secretary bringing me cups of sweet coffee and glasses of water. But it was clear that Nadir wasn’t coming out. And I wasn’t going in. I returned to the Jasmine Court, where I was told by a smiling receptionist that my suite was no longer available, and I would have to move to another hotel.
Over the next few days, with a bit of effort, the picture became a little clearer, and a lot more extraordinary.
The collapse of Nadir’s empire had been one of the biggest in British corporate history, and one of the City of London’s blue-chip accountancy firms had been appointed as administrators. But while the administrators controlled Polly Peck’s assets on paper and in law, in Northern Cyprus and Turkey those properties and businesses remained firmly in the hands of the tycoon’s placemen. They couldn’t be seized, and they certainly couldn’t be sold to pay off any creditors.
The situtation was getting a little fraught: one of the administrators had been shot in the leg in Istanbul, another had been beaten about the head and somebody had firebombed a car owned by a Turkish Cypriot lawyer working for the City firm. There had also, apparently, been some unspeakable nonsense involving headless chickens and dead cats.
British accountants had taken to arriving in Northern Cyprus in the company of ex-special forces bodyguards. On one occasion a small accountant and two large bodyguards had crammed themselves into the lift to Nadir’s office. When it became stuck between floors, nobody had shown any great interest in letting them out.
Eventually, I learned, the administrators had in desperation decided to open secret negotiations with a view to selling Polly Peck’s local assets to … Asil Nadir.
I had a story.
I dashed back to my rather ropy hotel, rang The Certain Tabloid Newspaper, and told the news editor that the chairman appeared to have been on to something: he’d just got all the facts wrong. I, on the other hand, had it all: the secret four-hour talks between the blue-chip accountants and the infamous fugitive; the shooting, the dead cats. I even had a brace of sweating ex-SAS men in a jammed Lefkosa lift. Fabulous.
“File it straight away!” cried the news editor.
I did, and ran headlong into the Contempt of Court Act.
Two days earlier, the trial of the boyfriend of a soap star, who was facing assault charges, had been halted because of the way in which several newspapers had reported the matter. The trial judge, clearly furious, had asked the attorney general to consider prosecuting the newspapers for contempt of court. The lawyer at The Certain Tabloid Newspaper was concerned that my story – if published before Asil Nadir was led into the dock at the Old Bailey – could similarly wreck his trial, and result in the newspaper being prosecuted for contempt.
“Oh come on,” I argued, “he’s sitting pretty here, it’s going to be years before he faces trial.”
I was referring to what attorneys general call the “fade factor”, the notion that that the longer the gap between publication of an article and the trial of a defendant, the less substantial is likely to be the risk of serious prejudice to their chances of receiving a fair trial. By the time Nadir stepped into the dock, nobody was going to remember my story, no matter how pleased I was with it.
But I lost the argument, the blue pencil came out, and my story was turned into a business report, a dry and anaemic shadow of itself, with no firebombs, no bodyguards, and not a headless chicken in sight.
Last week, after returning to Britain to stand trial almost two decades later, Nadir was convicted of stealing £30m from Polly Peck and sentenced to 10 years in jail. He had been driven, the judge said, by pure greed.
Like me, the lawyer who wrecked my story all those years ago is now working for the Guardian. I sauntered over to his desk, thinking we could perhaps have a chat about the fade factor. Or perhaps I still wanted to berate him.
But it had all been so long ago that the fade factor had worked its magic. Cats? Shootings? Jammed lifts? He couldn’t remember what on earth I was talking about. But at least now I can tell the tale.