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Chapter 12: Blackmail

The early evening of April 4th, 1989, found Eric Pickles waiting anxiously in his City Hall office. Inside the council chamber a key Education sub-committee meeting was in progress, with the Labour group launching a bitter assault on the Tories' involvement in the school meals buy-out.

At around 7.15 p.m. Richard Wightman reported to Pickles on the meeting's outcome. Pickles was relieved to hear that his group had survived.

Later, with the day's business wound up, Eric Pickles and Kath Metcalfe drove to Shipley to dine at the Aagrah Indian restaurant. Pickles was in a good mood, but that was soon to dramatically change.

After the meal the couple went to Kath Metcalfe's Bingley home. Pickles left around 11 p.m. -From there, as Pickles was to later claim, he drove to Allerton, to the house of Ronnie Farley.

He finally returned to his own Oakworth home in the early hours of the following morning.

As he climbed from his light blue Renault, Pickles claims he suddenly noticed that various items were missing from his car. 2 expensive pens and his car phone had disappeared, but most worrying of all he could not find his bulging filofax which contained his personal diary. The realisation struck, that at some time during the evening his car had been broken into and the items stolen.

As Pickles sat in his bungalow a short while later, the phone rang and he answered. A young man's voice said:

"I have something that belongs to you."

The caller explained that he had Pickles' diary and would return it for a sum of money. After some discussion Pickles hung up.

Next day the young man phoned Pickles again at City Hall. He said he would return the diary for £800, otherwise he would pass it on to a newspaper.

Pickles later said of the diary;

"I would class certain documents in the diary as reasonably sensitive but nothing alarming."

He made it clear to his young caller that he would not pay such a large sum and hung up.

On the other end of the line was 18 year old Ian McMahon. McMahon was unemployed and staying with his mother on Priestman Street in the Manningham area of Bradford. He was living on about £15 a week social security at the time. He had acquired the filofax the night before and when he'd seen the name of Eric Pickles in the diary, he'd quickly realised its significance - and its potential value. On Wednesday April 5th, after the second call from McMahon, Pickles finally rang the police to report the theft and the phone calls.

Late on Monday April 10th, a week after Pickles' car had been broken into, young reporter Robin Ackroyd was doing "night duty" at the Telegraph and Argus. The night shift was generally unpopular amongst reporters, but they all had to take their turn. Usually nothing much happened, occasionally a scoop landed straight in their lap.

22 year old Ackroyd had been with the T & A only a short time, having previously worked for a local weekly. However, he was already well regarded as a capable journalist. Ian McMahon slipped into a telephone box and phoned the T & A. Ackroyd answered. McMahon didn't identify himself, but told Ackroyd. he had "something you might be interested in." McMahon explained that he'd obtained controversial material relating to the Tory leader, Eric Pickles.

Ackroyd agreed to meet McMahon. He drove to a prearranged spot on Carlisle Road in Manningham and waited. McMahon appeared with his brother, 26 year old Martin Miskell. McMahon climbed in the car whilst his brother waited outside. Ackroyd asked what it was all about. Ian McMahon claimed that at about 11.30 on the night of April 4th, Eric Pickles' Renault had been parked in the Church Street area of Manningham. McMahon then made a series of startling allegations about the Tory leader. The astonished journalist asked if there was any evidence to substantiate the allegations. McMahon produced 2 pages from Pickles' diary and gave them to Ackroyd.

"You can have the rest of the diary for £150", he said.

Ackroyd realised that the pages were genuine and asked for time to consider the matter. McMahon agreed to phone him again later.

The T & A reporter returned to the newspaper's city centre offices, agonising over what he should do next. He knew that he had a potentially explosive story, but if he was to hand over money for a stolen diary, he would become an accessory to the crime.

2 more phone calls from McMahon followed. The final call, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, ended with McMahon calling the whole deal off.

The next morning a tired Robin Ackroyd called to see his news editor Malcolm Hoddy and told him the tale. Hoddy didn't hesitate - he called the police.

Of course, when the young Ian McMahon had approached the T & A he could not have known that the news editor was in almost daily contact with Eric Pickles and had close connections with the police. Those connections had developed when Hoddy had been a news agency crime reporter. In fact, Hoddy already knew of the theft, from his contacts.

The task of handling the case fell to the Toller sub-division of Bradford North's police force, commanded by Superintendent Leslie Wilkinson. The Toller sub-division covers the Manningham area, which is probably most notorious countrywide for it's prostitutes who work along the Lumb Lane/Carlisle Road/Church Street line. Toller even has it's own 6 man "vice" squad.

The police viewed the matter as extremely serious. It was a clear case of blackmail and the victim was the most important politician in the city. But they had no idea who was behind it, or how sophisticated the would-be blackmailers were. After questioning Ackroyd, the police could do little but hope that McMahon would phone again. Their luck held.

That Tuesday afternoon, April 11th, a call duly came through for Ackroyd. It was McMahon who wanted to know if the deal was still on.

Under police instruction Ackroyd agreed to meet McMahon alone that night with £150 for the diary. The meeting was fixed for 9 o'clock at the same spot on Carlisle Road as the previous meeting.

The police had little time to organise their forces. A large number of officers, some with dogs, were hidden around the meeting point. Buildings, bushes and unmarked vans were used as hiding places. To make matters worse, the deployment had to be arranged without arousing too much suspicion in a very busy area.

The police were also concerned to collect enough evidence to ensure that any future prosecution would succeed. They knew that at least 2 young men were involved, but if officers just moved in to arrest them as they climbed into Ackroyd's car, the youths might simply claim; "We thought it was a taxi!"

Robin Ackroyd was therefore wired up with a concealed microphone, and tape recorder.

As the scheduled time approached the nervous T & A reporter, now acting as bait, set off for the rendezvous. Dozens of police officers watched from their hidden surveillance points as Ackroyd pulled his car into the side of the road and waited.

Eventually lan McMahon approached the car, but there was no sign of his brother Martin Miskell.

In fact Miskell was close by, holding the diary. McMahon had decided, after their first meeting, that Ackroyd was not to be trusted.

lan McMahon and Robin Ackroyd sat together in the car.

"Have you got the money?" asked the youth.

"Do you have the diary?" responded the journalist.

Of course neither had the goods, but weren't about to admit it.

Still suspicious of the journalists' intentions, McMahon asked him to drive around the corner onto a side street, where he claimed his friend was waiting with the diary. Ackroyd refused, fearing he was about to be mugged.

Meanwhile police officers watched from their surveillance points, anxious at their poor view. Ackroyd had been forced to park further down the road than had been intended.

Finally the police decided they could wait no longer. The order to move in was given.

Police officers suddenly poured onto the scene from all directions. Martin Miskell, waiting close by, couldn't believe what was happening. He turned and ran straight through a group of officers, still clutching the diary. The police gave chase with dogs, but Miskell ran faster than he'd ever run before in his life. He lost his pursuers.

For Ian McMahon the game was up. He was "banged to rights" and he knew it.

The size of the police operation had stunned McMahon. What had started out as a simple way to make a small amount of money had developed into a scene straight out of "Miami Vice".

The police were quick to point out the seriousness of the charges; for blackmail he potentially faced many years in prison. The police were also concerned to identify and arrest McMahon's accomplice, as well as retrieve the diary.

Records soon produced details on McMahon. He had 2 previous convictions for attempted theft from cars and was currently on bail awaiting trial on 3 other counts of car theft.

To experienced police officers it looked clear cut; McMahon must have broken into Pickles' car and stolen the diary and other items.

But it wasn't as simple as that, for although Ian McMahon was co-operating with the police, he flatly denied that he had broken into the Renault. He insisted that held been stood at the end of his street late on the night of April 4th when he'd seen 2 men that he knew throw something into a skip. He'd investigated and discovered it was Pickles' diary.

The police found this story hardly credible, but to disprove it they needed to establish a direct link between McMahon and the car. They searched McMahon's home but found no trace of the missing pens or car phone - the items that would have provided the proof they needed.

A second potential link between McMahon and the Renault lay in McMahon's allegation that Pickles' car had been parked in Manningham on the night the diary was stolen. This, however, was flatly denied by Pickles, whose own record of his movements that night took him nowhere near the Manningham area.

The police had questioned Pickles and tried to ascertain exactly where and when his Renault had been broken into. Pickles wasn't sure. He'd retraced his steps that night and the only real opportunity for the theft he could identify was whilst he was dining at the Aagrah in Shipley.

If this was true, it meant that Pickles had climbed into his car in Shipley without noticing the break-in. He had then driven to Bingley, on to Allerton and finally back to Oakworth without noticing that various items were missing.

On the face of it this seemed unlikely. However, the break-in almost certainly would not have left any obvious signs. Ian McMahon, for instance, was skilled at "jumping" central car locking systems with a half pair of scissors - always on the passenger side.

Similarly, there is little reason to believe that Pickles would notice the disappearance of 2 pens or his filofax until such time as he wanted them.

The car phone is a different matter. It is harder to imagine how he could fail to notice the disappearance of such a prominent object, particularly considering that before setting off to visit Ronnie Farley so late at night - after 11 p.m. - he might well have considered phoning him first to check that it was alright.

The police had no reason to believe that McMahon had been to Shipley that evening, or that Pickles' car had been singled out specifically. Never the less, they were forced, eventually, to accept an "official" version of events, however unsatisfactory.

The official version ran as follows:

On the evening of April 4th at around 9 p.m., 2 "persons unknown" broke into Eric Pickles' Renault in Shipley. The 2 people then went to the Carlisle Road area of Manningham. Keeping the valuables, they threw the diary into a skip. Ian McMahon saw them, retrieved the diary and then phoned Pickles "demanding money with menaces".

Even so, McMahon would still subsequently plead guilty to the theft of the diary.

As his barrister Mr. Sydney Levine was to later explain:

"The accused's plea of guilty to theft of the diary is on the basis, not that he took it from the car, which he did not, as he always denied to the police, but it was theft of the diary by finding."

As far as McMahon's further allegations were concerned, the police had to assume that these were fabricated by the youth in order to "spice up" his tale for the reporter.

In fact these allegations were never made public. At McMahon's subsequent trial only an oblique reference was made to them. Whilst presenting the prosecution's case, barrister Sharon Beattie said; "McMahon has made various untrue allegations against Mr. Pickles - (he) admitted the same."

The next morning police officers raided the home of Martin Miskell. Miskell was older and proved much less co-operative. His house was searched and in a jacket pocket was found a piece of paper with 2 telephone numbers; those of the T & A and Eric Pickles. That was enough to link him to the blackmail and Miskell was arrested.

Miskell was given a hard time by the police, who were still trying to locate the missing diary. But it soon became clear that Miskell's role had been a minor one - he had simply acted as "minder" for his brother and the diary at McMahon's request.

However, he was charged with "handling stolen goods" and was convinced he would "go down". Miskell was told bluntly that if the diary was returned then it could only go in the favour of his brother and himself. Miskell eventually told the police where the diary had been stashed - under a bush.

Although not entirely satisfied with the final story, the police were none the less pleased with a "good result".

On Thursday April 13th, McMahon and Miskell appeared before Bradford magistrates. McMahon was remanded in custody and Miskell was given bail. Pickles got his diary back. That evening Eric Pickles stayed late at his City Hall office, chatting with Kath Metcalfe. At 7 p.m. the duo, looking distinctly cheerful, left the almost deserted council building. They continued their conversation in Pickles' car before Kath Metcalfe bid the council leader an affectionate goodbye and slipped into her own car.

It is not known if they were discussing mundane matters like council business, or whether the topic of such a chirpy conversation concerned the day's developments in the diary theft saga.

2 months later on June 14th Ian McMahon appeared at Leeds Crown court. He faced the 3 outstanding charges of car theft that dated from Autumn 1988, and pleaded guilty.

He then faced the charge of stealing the diary, car telephone and 2 pens belonging to Eric Pickles. He pleaded guilty to the diary alone.

Finally he faced the most serious charge of blackmail. Again he pleaded guilty.

McMahon left it to his barrister, Sydney Levine, to plead on his behalf. Whether or not McMahon stood by the allegations he had made against Pickles, he was saying nothing in court.

His barrister said;

"...there was really no question of this being any attempt to embarrass the gentleman in the sort of way that might have been possible for anyone who was so minded, nor indeed through me does he wish to do so today."

Judge Garner, in his final summing up, accepted that the blackmail attempt "was not a sophisticated or planned offence". He added;

"I also agree that a plea of guilty in an offence of this type is cogent mitigation, and indeed the best evidence of remorse."

None the less, Garner said;

"Blackmail is always a serious offence and must always be visited by a custodial sentence. That is inevitable."

Judge Garner sentenced Ian McMahon to 15 months for blackmail, 6 months for the theft of the diary and 6 months for the other car thefts - all to run concurrently.

The sentence seemed harsh, but barrister Sydney Levine explained "It was on the low side of the tariff for blackmail which is a very serious offence." Indeed, McMahon had been expecting 3 years.

Martin Miskell had to wait another 5 months for his hearing. On October 20th he appeared at Wakefield Crown court and pleaded guilty to handling stolen goods.

By this time Miskell was a single parent with responsibility for 3 very young children. He feared a prison sentence, but Judge Garner accepted that his role in the affair was minimal and placed him on probation for a year.

Eric Pickles breathed a sigh of relief. The whole matter had been wrapped up with the minimum of publicity. Scandal had been averted, his secrets were safe.