The letter Aitken wrote to confuse

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The former Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken admitted in the High Court yesterday that he was "guilty" of "sharp-editing" a letter to the Cabinet Secretary about a stay at the Paris Ritz Hotel owned by Mohamed Al Fayed.

Mr Aitken said he had not intended to deceive Sir Robin Butler, his intention was to throw "dust in the eyes" of the Guardian newspaper, which was pursuing stories linking him to alleged corruption.

The former defence procurement minister and chief secretary to the Treasury is suing the Guardian and Granada Television, makers of World in Action, over allegations that he pimped for Arabs and took part in illegal arms dealing.

George Carmen QC, counsel for defence, asked Mr Aitken whether he had failed the test of total candour and total honesty expected of a Cabinet minister in his dealings with the Cabinet Secretary, when it came to the letter about who settled the hotel bill.

Mr Carmen said: "There you were, a Cabinet minister, misleadingly misquoting the letter from the Ritz which would mislead Sir Robin Butler." Mr Aitken responded: "I had no intention of deceiving Sir Robin. My sharp editing of the letter, to which I plead guilty, was not intended to deceive him but to put the Guardian off the scent."

Mr Carmen suggested that this "was a misrepresentation" of a letter sent by the general manager of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. He invited Mr Aitken to differentiate between "sharp editing" and "dishonest editing".

Mr Aitken replied: "That's your language. I would put it differently. Dishonesty is a blatant lie. Sharp editing, intended to confuse a hostile adversary, might not be praise-worthy, but it is not as reprehensible as you are trying to make it sound."

In a blistering exchange at the beginning of the cross-examination on the third day of the trial, Mr Carmen asked Mr Aitken if he accepted that he was "totally unfit for public office" if the judge had to make the "melancholy decision" that he had "lied to the Cabinet Secretary, lied to the Prime Minister, lied to the House of Commons and lied to this court, over your stay at the Ritz".

Mr Aitken responded: "You are dealing here with hypothesis on hypothesis, but if his lordship were to make those dramatic judgements then obviously it would be a shattering blow to me, yes."

Mr Carmen asked: "It would butcher you reputation?" Mr Aitken responded: "My reputation has already been butchered." Mr Carmen continued: "It would butcher it yet again?" Mr Aitken agreed: "Yes it will."

Mr Aitken told Mr Justice Popplewell that he had met an old friend and business colleague, Said Ayas, for a social meeting at the Ritz during a Paris visit. He refuted allegations that he had met a number of other Arab businessmen to discuss arms sales.

Mr Aitken said when he had arrived at the Ritz he had produced his credit card but had been told "it won't be necessary". He said: "Unfortunately, at the time I did not think this was of any great significance. I was not on guard because I was suffering from a degree of `Yes Minister' - I was addressed as Monsieur Ministere because grand hotels sometimes greet guests they think are grand in this very respectful way."

He told the court the bill was later settled by his wife, with money given by him. The Guardian had been asking him about the payment of the bill and he had responded to the newpaper's "conspiracy theory".

Mr Aitken said he had bumped into Peter Preston, the then editor of the Guardian, at a dinner in November 1993. The former minister continued that he said to Mr Preston: "Well, Peter, I hope you have now established that all these conspiracy stories you were floating across me a few weeks ago have all turned out to be rubbish.

"He replied in a rather chilling sort of way `Oh no, I think we will get you in the end'. I didn't know what he meant by that." The case continues.

The pattern for a modern silk

Already a star of the libel bar, Charles Gray QC, the 54-year- old counsel for Mr Aitken, is now tipped for even greater fame. He has long been considered one of the so-called `fashionable four' libel QCs - along with George Carman QC, David Eady QC and Gareth Williams QC. Now that David Eady has been made a High Court judge and Gareth Williams a Labour peer, he is viewed as about to inherit their fiefdoms as well. Tall, distinguished and polished, he is the epitome of the modern silk, businesslike and lowish-key with few courtroom hystrionics. A product of Winchester and Oxford, he is likely to earn a minimum of half a million a year and probably much more. He has notched up a string of court victories for the likes of Jason Donovan, Lord Linley, and the actors Oliver Reed and William Roache and many more out of court, making him, for example, something approaching Daily Telegraph proprietor Conrad Black's personal libel lawyer. His most stunning victory, the pounds 1.5m he won for the Tory peer Lord Aldington after he was falsely accused of being a war criminal, was however the most pyrrhic, since the money was never paid.

Charmer loved by the juries

George Carman QC, 67, counsel for The Guardian and Granada Television, has built a formidable reputation as the man juries love as he collected a string of famous victories, and not just in the libel field. The Blackpool- born Carman cut his legal teeth on the northern circuit and in the past was as well known for criminal work. He defended the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, who was cleared of conspiracy to murder and conducted comedian Ken Dodd's successful defence against fraud charges brought by Her Majesty's Tax Inspectors. `Everybody wanted him for everything,' according to one close associate. At Balliol, he collected first class honours in jurisprudence but went for the more plain speaking, blunt even, approach in court. He has clashed with his friend and current opponent, Charles Gray, on many previous occasions, seeing off Ian Botham's and Allan Lamb's complaint against Imran Kahn. That contest, like most others, involved a jury. In the juryless Aitken trial, the great juryman must content himself with a mere High Court judge. Thrice married, currently divorced and a proud grandparent, his success is mixed with charm.