LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
By a happy accident, Secret History's film (C4) about the Boothby affair, a tale of Tory corruption, mendacity and establishment collusion, was screened only half an hour after World in Action's follow-up to "Jonathan of Arabia", the documentary in which they first detailed Mr Aitken's rather broad interpretation of "standard business practice". I couldn't see the new film, which included allegations of attempts to bribe and intimidate witnesses, because Granada were working on it until shortly before transmission. Perhaps they were hoping that a few more big names would join the avalanche of pious recrimination that has been unleashed by the cancellation of the libel trial. Please don't misunderstand me - if anyone deserves to be buried under such an avalanche it is Mr Aitken, but it's still possible to wonder a little about figures who say that they have known for years that he was a bounder and a rogue but chose not to mention (or act) on the fact before. But for the nerve of Granada and The Guardian, this state of affairs might have continued indefinitely - the mephitic common knowledge concealed beneath a thin skin of rectitude and outraged innocence.

In Boothby's case, the thin skin held. Despite the fact that the Sunday Mirror had him "bang to rights" (as his loucher friends might have put it) with their scoop about his association with Ronnie Kray, he had enough friends to make his denial stand. As a result, his reward for lying through his teeth was a sum equivalent to pounds 500,000 in today's money, as well as an abject front-page apology from the newspaper concerned. Simon Berthon's account of the cover-up was instructive in a number of ways - both about the psychology of the liar and the contingency of public exposure. For anyone who spent the weekend wondering why Jonathan Aitken had lied about a relatively trivial matter, there was a plausible explanation in a remark Boothby made after an early lie to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was questioning him about a concealment of financial interest. "Why did you fib?" asked a nephew. "Oh, I couldn't stand Sir John Simon," Boothby replied airily. Some similar contempt probably fuelled Aitken's initial lies - an arrogant refusal to allow nemesis across the threshold because it came in the shape of an imagined inferior.

Boothby also had the good fortune that the scandal was as embarrassing for the opposition as it was for his own party. Worried that the sexual involvement of Tom Driberg with "Mad" Teddy Smith, a Kray henchman, might be revealed, the Labour establishment called on that legal hippo, Arnold Goodman, to squash the story. Cecil King refused to back his journalists, to their complete mystification, and Lord Boothby went on to cement his reputation as a kind of opinionated Toby jug, an ornament on the national mantelpiece. The truth was widely known, but a combination of timidity, legal bullying, opportunism and worldly sympathy replaced it with an outright lie. It has undoubtedly happened since (with principals who aren't yet dead and thus unable to contact their lawyers), and it might have again with Aitken. Secret History usefully reminded you that if journalists aren't going to be nit-picking and moralistic about public life, then you can be pretty sure that nobody else will be.

In a relatively rare instance of television honouring its own, Omnibus (BBC1) offered a profile of the early life of Jack Rosenthal, a writer who has featured on more Bafta nomination lists than David Jason. It had to be that way, because the later life largely consisted of sitting in a room writing plays about the early life, and the anecdotes naturally tend to tail off. Randall Wright's film took the familiar roots route (trawl writer around scenes of childhood), but Rosenthal's writerly involvement, and the clips from the work, made it a most enjoyable schlep down memory lane. Nostalgia for my childhood, I now realise, includes a nostalgia for his - passed on by means of those funny, moving and memorable plays.

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