THE serious press last week enjoyed a feeling that one normally experiences only when a much-loved sitcom returns to the screen after a long absence. The Jonathan Aitken Show was back with apparent new twists to the plot line. "I lied for my country, says Aitken" was the way the Telegraph head- line put it on Thursday. Inside the same paper was "the story behind Jonathan Aitken's fall" in which Malcolm Pearson "says his friend is a patriotic man whose secret work for the good of his country led, in part, to his eventual disgrace in the libel courts".

Lord Pearson's defence of Aitken ended: "So where lies the balance in all this? Does the national interest arise? I admire all the good things which Jonathan has done in his life too much to judge. The many witness statements for the libel action bear ample evidence to those good things, which fill by far the largest part of his swashbuckling and colourful career. I offer no further comment on the Paris Ritz bill affair."

It was as though the main character in our series had been recast from Rik Mayall as Alan B'stard into Rowan Atkinson as the well-meaning but befuddled British agent in the Barclaycard commercials. The next day, Aitken was charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice. As the Express put it: "Disgraced Tory Jonathan Aitken will claim he lied about his Paris Ritz hotel bill because he was a spy ... the ex-minister alleges both former PM John Major and MI6 head Sir Colin McColl knew of his undercover operation."

Friday's Independent said that the Daily Telegraph "has consistently been sympathetic to Mr Aitken". Yet the Telegraph's sympathy seems not as wholehearted as it once was. On Thursday, it quoted the Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, as saying: "It's a curious coincidence that after four years of silence we should be finally treated to an explanation only on the eve of prosecution", and on Friday, the Telegraph published a letter from Peter Preston of the Guardian, saying that: "the chronology of events as detailed by Malcolm Pearson is wholly at odds with the documented facts". The simple sword of truth and trusty shield of fair play seem to have become tarnished in recent years.

Fair play was also under dispute in the other main story of the week, the release of Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan from a Saudi jail. "Nurses back to make a killing" was how the Sun described their homecoming. The Mirror bought Ms McLauchlan's story, the Express bought Ms Parry's, and the Mail was furious. "A heated political row broke out ... after it emerged that Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan have sold their stories to newspapers for six-figure sums" the Mail trumpeted on Thursday. Friday's Mirror, however, fought back with a story entitled: "pounds 175,000, hypocrisy ... and the Daily Mail" claiming that "The Mail fought desperately to get the scoop for itself. It offered pounds 175,000 for exclusive access to Lucille on her return to Britain. And it even tried to 'gazump' the Mirror after we had sealed an agreement with Lucille's solicitor."

The result may not have been what the Mail wanted, but it ended up with far better coverage than its tabloid rivals. Having paid all that money, the Mirror and the Express could tell only one side of the story. "My Story by Lucille McLauchlan" as the entire front page of Friday's Mirror put it. "Saudi nurse free from hell: see pages 2,3,4,5,6,7,8 & 9." And on those pages we read "I was battered, half-naked, starving ... then they threatened to gang-rape me", and "Thank God she's back" and "She's a perfect daughter" from her mum, and "Lucille and I are longing to be man and wife properly" from the man who married her while she was in jail, and "There's nothing to stop them nursing in Britain". The Express went for: "Our girl is no killer" and "So scared they will execute me" and "I wouldn't even kill a bird" and "Family that never gave up".

Unhampered by any dents in their chequebook, the Mail gave similar prominence to the nurses' protestations of innocence and of confessions extracted under torture, but also allowed themselves to suggest that they might be guilty as convicted. The Saudi Arabian ambassador to Britain was quoted as saying: "I am quite certain that these two women received a fair and just trial. The three senior judges are all pious and intelligent men of great standing." The Mail also gave two pages to a detailed analysis of the crime and the characters and actions of the two convicted women, which shows that the prosecution's case was by no means as flimsy as the Mirror and Express might like us to believe. One wonders what would have happened to this piece had the Mail succeeded in buying one of the nurses' stories.

While the Mail was, on the whole, balanced, the Sun had no doubts: "This was no kangaroo court, these nurses are guilty of a brutal murder" was the huge headline above an interview with the Saudi ambassador on Thursday. The next day, when the other tabloids were covering their front pages with their exclusives, the Sun had had enough of the nurses. It led on "Street star nicks park bench", a story of a Coronation Street actor who was questioned by police after he had carried off a bench which he says he thought had been left in a skip. You had to get to page six before "They're cashing in on my sister's murder" rounded on the nurses again.

And what did the serious press make of all this? The Times praised King Fahd for his clemency and stressed: "This is not a case of rescuing innocent citizens thrown arbitrarily into jail or bringing home the victims of foreign injustice." The Telegraph said: "We are unable to conclude with any confidence whether the nurses are innocent or guilty" but came down heavily against "tabloid excess". The Independent concentrated on the case for the defence, and the Guardian advised: "Nurses should keep media at bay" saying "This unhappy affair has been resolved, the two are reunited with their families, and that should be that". Fat chance.