Members' Interests: The unlikely inquisitor: The Editor

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The Independent Online
THE UNANSWERED and half-answered questions surrounding Jonathan Aitken's stay at the Ritz in Paris have turned Peter Preston, the editor of the Guardian, from a journalist into a central figure in the sleaze scandal.

Mr Preston sits uneasily in the role. He is a quiet, some might say unknowable, man of 56 (the same age as Sir Robin Butler), who smokes his pipe a great deal and is an Olympic class ironist. He was educated at grammar school in Loughborough and studied English literature at St John's College, Oxford. Almost all of his 34 years as a journalist have been spent at the Guardian. Kelvin Mackenzie he is not.

Since October 1993, Mr Preston has written letters to Sir Robin Butler, the head of the Home Civil Service and Mr Aitken, about Mr Aitken's stay at the Ritz in Paris.

Most of the questions raised came from documents supplied by the Ritz's owner, Mohamed AlFayed, or his employees. The correspondence remained private until May this year, when Mr Preston wrote a piece in his newspaper outlining his frustration at the way Sir Robin Butler and the Prime Minister had dealt with the allegations.

He has always admitted some 'modest subterfuge' in the way he and his paper tried to substantiate the allegations. That, according to some reports today, seems to be the fact that a Guardian journalist forged a fax to the Ritz in Mr Aitken's name on House of Commons notepaper to get details of what Mr Aitken did, or did not, pay for at the hotel. The Guardian responded yesterday by saying that the fax was an easily detectable forgery designed to protect a source of information.

Yesterday Mr Preston released a new letter he had written to Sir Robin about Mr Aitken's statement on Friday, when Mr Aitken explained that half of his hotel bill had been paid by mistake by Abdul Rahman, the nephew of the Aitkens' friend Said Ayas, a Saudi businessman, who had booked the rooms.

Mr Aitken said that when he had realised the mistake in February this year - five months after his stay in the hotel - he paid the money to Mr Rahman. He claims that the rest of the bill was settled in cash by his wife soon after he left the hotel.

Mr Preston said in his letter yesterday: 'Jonathan Aitken says he did not discover this discrepancy, or rectify it, until three days after your enquiry concluded. Please: how was it possible for you to clear Mr Aitken before he, you or anyone else realised what had gone wrong?'

Mr Preston went on to accuse the minister of misleading him. Mr Aitken sent the editor a copy of a letter dated 3 March he had written to Sir Robin. The letter to Sir Robin made no mention of a cheque being given to Mr Rahman less than two weeks earlier.

Mr Preston told Sir Robin: 'I am perplexed to feel that . . . you and Mr Aitken were prepared to defend together that 3 March letter, which you surely must now realise was calculated to give a misleading impression . . .

I wonder if . . . you can tell me why you were prepared to let that misleading quotation remain unaddressed over . . . long and difficult months?'

(Photograph omitted)