The Aitken affair: The Tory high-flier impaled on his sword of truth

The Price Of Pride
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The Independent Online
FOR MANY a Tory, it was an occasion to be proud of. There was one of their finest, a cabinet minister and probable future leader, taking on the unruly press which had beensniping at the government with spurious allegations of sleaze.

As he stood there, ramrod straight, his tousled hair glistening under the dazzling television lights, the words were defiant: "It falls on me to start this fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth......"

That was 10 April 1995 at Conservative Central Office, Yesterday, saw the final disgrace and public humiliation of Jonathan Aitken as he stood in the dock admitting that he was a criminal, a perjurer who would even seek to use his daughter to buttress his lies.

There is now a very real possibility that this scion of the Beaverbrook dynasty will be swapping his grand home in Lord North Street, Westminster, for Wormwood Scrubs.

The road from Smith Square to the Old Bailey is one full of surprising detours. It began because of Aitken's fascination with the Middle East and the media's interest in his fascination. In 1967 as a young journalist with the Evening Standard, the family newspaper in the sense his family owned it, he had been to Abu Dhabi and whiffed the intoxicating fragrance of petrodollars. It was, he decided, the new Klondike and Aitken set out to cultivate this rich seam and made himself a millionaire, especially through his links with Prince Mohammed bin Fahd the son of the Saudi king.

Arab money went into the launch of a pounds 50m financial services group and the purchase of shares in TV-AM.

The Paris Ritz affair began with an exchange of letters between The Guardian and Aitken, then the defence procurement minister, in October 1993 over allegations that he had spent a weekend at the hotel, and the room had been paid for by a business contact. The story was supplied by Mohamed al-Fayed.

Aitken went on a two-pronged offensive. He approached the cabinet secretary, Sir Robin Butler, to clear his name and succeeded, by giving a false version of events to Sir Robin, saying that after an initial mix-up the bill had in fact been paid by his wife Lolicia.

He also kept up a stream of correspondence with Peter Preston, the then Guardian editor purportedly refuting the allegations point by point, but in reality lying about the Paris Ritz stay. He was confident he would never get found out.

"The Ritz affair" Aitken said at the time " had blown over ... it was one of those thunderstorms which quickly pass". John Major's appointment of him as Chief Secretary to the Treasury dealt him a perfect hand. But fresh thunderstorms were brewing. In May 1994 The Guardian published an article questioning Sir Robin Butler's clearing of Aitken and followed up in October of that year with direct allegations about the stay at the Paris Ritz.

Then in October 1995 the newspaper and Granada TV's World in Action, in a documentary called "Jonathan of Arabia", repeated the Paris accusations and also claimed that Aitken had procured prostitutes for Arab clients at the Inglewood Health Hydro in Berkshire and questioned his directorship of BMARC, a company which sent guns to Iran in breach of a UN embargo.

A seemingly incensed Aitken made his "sword of truth" speech and issued writs against The Guardian and Granada. Then, in Spring next year, just as the Sunday Mirror was due to publish claims of a sado-masochistic affair between him and a prostitute, Aitken resigned from the government.

In the spring of 1997 with the general election looming Lord Saatchi, who was masterminding John Major's last advertising campaign, suggested to the Guardian's editor Alan Rusbridger that the affair should be settled out of court and offered to act as honest broker.

A lunch was arranged for Lord Saatchi, Mr Rusbridger his friend David Mills, a lawyer, and Aitken. But minutes before the lunch Aitken pulled out saying he felt it would be legally compromising to face Mr Rusbridger face to face. The Guardian editor made another offer, that each side should pay their own costs, then standing at around pounds 200,000 each, and agree on a statement the day after the general election. Lord Saatchi took the offer to Aitken, who rejected it.

Both The Guardian and Granada TV were aware their case was less than watertight in some departments and the decision by the judge, Mr Justice Popplewell, to agree to the request by Aitken's lawyers to hear the case without a jury was seen as a victory for the former minister. As the trial unfolded, their trepidation seemed justified.

In the witness box Aitken was relaxed and confident in his fabrications. To those covering the trial it seemed he was heading for a points victory against the defendants' formidable counsel, George Carman. At one stage Granada's libel insurers were for cutting their losses and settling. But after a meeting between them and the newspaper it was decided to continue for the time being.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, painstaking work by The Guardian's lawyer, Geraldine Proudler, and reporter Owen Bowcott produced evidence from a hotel in Switzerland and airline records that Lolicia Aitken could not have been in Paris on the date claimed to pay her husband's hotel bill.

Mr Carman had pulled his rabbit out of the hat and Aitken's case disintegrated along with public credibility.

The libel victory by The Guardian and Granada was a much closer run thing than widely thought. But it was still an astonishing example of Aitken's confidence that he was prepared to take the gamble of the court case and reject the peace offering beforehand. At the end he was a man consumed by his own arrogance.