PR man threatens to sue over fax gaffe

The Aitken affair: Chief Secretary's `friendly adviser' attacks decision to publish confidential letter as `sleaze'
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The Independent Online

The public relations man who accidentally leaked highly embarrassing correspondence intended for Jonathan Aitken threatened yesterday to sue the Independent on Sunday for publishing it.

Patrick Robertson, whose office faxed the Aitken correspondence to a wrong number, tried to deflect attention from his gaffe by describing the decision to publish as "sleaze".

The fax, which was supposed to have been sent to Mr Aitken, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, showed that the minister believed "one more bad story will break the camel's back". Mr Robertson, 26, who is favoured as a spin doctor by the Tory right, was advising Mr Aitken on how to handle a "nasty" story which the minister expected to break in a number of Sunday tabloid newspapers yesterday.

He advised against issuing a statement which would serve as a "pre-emptive strike" and added: "I am as certain as I can be that if you issue the statement in its current form you will be forced to resign within days."

The advice was supposed to have been faxed to Paul Raynes, Mr Aitken's private secretary, on Wednesday evening. But Mr Robertson's PR firm, Taskforce Communications, which he set up with Cecil Parkinson, the former Tory party chairman, made a mistake, sending it to David Scholefield, who passed the fax on to the Independent on Sunday.

Yesterday, Mr Robertson refused to discuss the contents of the fax or cast more light on what kind of "nasty" story Mr Aitken feared. But he said he was taking legal advice on suing the Independent on Sunday and Sunday Mirror, which also ran the story, for breach of copyright.

He described as "humbug" Mr Scholefield's decision to pass the fax on and for the newspapers to publish it. "This is precisely the kind of sleaze that Jonathan Aitken has been a victim of," he said. "For this private letter to end up in Sunday newspapers describes quite adequately the situation in the country we live in these days."

Mr Robertson, the PR man for tomorrow's wedding of Imran Khan, the former Pakistan cricket star, and Sir James Goldsmith's daughter, Jemima, said he was not employed by Mr Aitken. "I am his friendly adviser and I drop him an occasional note or give him a call to suggest ways of dealing with problems." He said he could not take credit for Mr Aitken's decision not to issue a pre-emptive statement because the Chief Secretary never received his advice. His office sent a second fax asking Mr Scholefield to return the first fax but received no reply.

In his fax, Mr Robertson, founder of the Bruges Group of Euro-sceptics, discussed ways of handling the media and argued against issuing the pre- emptive strike. "I completely understand your primary concern, which is that one more bad story will break the camel's back," he wrote. "I still believe, however, that your fundamental problem is and will continue to be BMARC. The statement does nothing to reassure on that score."

He said a source told him that three tabloids were "sniffing around" the "nasty" story and advised: "If the objective is to stop the tabloids from running a nasty story against you on Sunday, there is only one way to do it: you would need to talk to the other person involved. Nothing else would work."

Mr Aitken refused to comment yesterday.

James Fenton, page 17