The Labour Party deputy leader said she had never “colluded” with the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) while she was legal officer of the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) in the 1970s.
And she called for an apology from the Daily Mail – which has highlighted links between PIE and the NCCL – for running what she described as a campaign of “smear and innuendo” against her.
But the newspaper’s consultant editor Andrew Pierce hit back, saying Ms Harman and her husband Jack Dromey – who was also prominent in the NCCL – should have done more to disassociate the civil rights body from PIE.
Ms Harman, issuing a statement through a spokeswoman yesterday, expressed her “regret” that the NCCL – now known as Liberty – had ever become involved with PIE.
It followed an interview on BBC2’s Newsnight on Monday night in which she repeatedly refused to say that it had been a “mistake” for the NCCL to have allowed PIE to become an affiliate member in the 1970s. From 1978 to 1982, Ms Harman was legal officer at the NCCL.
PIE – a group that spoke positively about adults attracted to children – was granted affiliate status with the NCCL before Ms Harman joined.
Ms Harman returned to the airwaves yesterday to insist her work at the NCCL had not been in any way affected by the link with PIE.
“I’m not going to apologise because I’ve got nothing to apologise for,” she said in a television interview. “I very much regret that this vile organisation, PIE, ever existed and that it ever had anything to do with NCCL, but it did not affect my work at NCCL.
“They had been pushed to the margins before I actually went to NCCL and to allege that I was involved in collusion with paedophilia or apologising for paedophilia is quite wrong and is a smear.
“It is actually not me that should be apologising for something that I haven’t done. It is the Daily Mail that should be apologising for their smear and innuendo.”
She also attacked the newspaper on social media website Twitter for publishing photographs of young girls in bikinis, writing: “When it comes to decency and sexualisation of children, would you take lessons from the Daily Mail?”
Mr Pierce said it was wrong to try to conflate images of girls that could be seen on “any British beach” with the “grotesque” activities of PIE.
He said that Ms Harman and Mr Dromey – who is now a shadow home office minister – still needed to explain why they had not done more to end the links between the two organisations.
“Their offence was not to publicly disassociate from this organisation,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One. “It matters enormously that they did not do more to get rid of this horrible, disgusting organisation.”
He said Ms Harman had been one of the politicians making the “loudest noise” about the Jimmy Savile scandal, demanding transparency from the organisations involved.
“She has not applied that same high quality of standard to her own work at the National Council for Civil Liberties,” he said.
Former Labour health secretary Patricia Hewitt, who was NCCL general-secretary from 1974 to 1983, has also featured in the Daily Mail’s coverage of the issue. She has yet to comment on the story.
In her Newsnight interview, Ms Harman declined to accept that it had been a mistake for any link to have been allowed between the NCCL and PIE.
“On the basis that it has created, somehow, a sense that NCCL’s work was therefore tainted by them, yes, obviously that is a very unfortunate inference to happen,” she said.
“It is not the case that my work when I was at NCCL was influenced by PIE, was apologising for paedophilia, or colluding with paedophilia – that is an unfair inference and it’s a smear.”
Asked why she would not say it had been wrong, she told the programme: “Because they were challenged and they were pushed aside from their views having any influence on NCCL.”
The Daily Mail issued a response to Ms Harman’s claims she was the victim of a “politically motivated smear campaign”.
It said: “The belated statements today of Ms Harman and her husband – full of pedantry and obfuscation – failed to answer the Mail’s central points and deny allegations the Mail has not made.
“In stark contrast, Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, which took over the NCCL’s mantle, has condemned the historic links with PIE as a ‘source of continuing disgust and horror’.
“As for smears, it is a newspaper’s job to ask awkward and controversial questions – questions that in this instance are still awaiting a satisfactory answer.”