Press ruined me, says Aitken

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Indy Politics

Westminster Correspondent

Jonathan Aitken, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, yesterday accused the press of costing him his ministerial career, causing "enormous damage" to his reputation and putting intense pressure on his family.

Towards the end of his appearance before the Trade and Industry Select Committee inquiry into BMARC, the arms firm where he was once a director, for sending arms to Iran via Singapore, Mr Aitken turned on the media and Gerald James, his former company chairman.

He claimed Mr James's allegation that he must have been "blind and deaf" not to know the company's guns were going to Iran, supported by "a small fan club" of journalists, had done him great harm.

He was vitriolic about his former BMARC colleague. "Gerald James should be taken off to the funny farm or he should be put on a charge of perjury, to which he could no doubt successfully plead diminished responsibility," said Mr Aitken.

With his wife, Lolicia, sitting behind him, Mr Aitken made an emotional and theatrical appeal to the committee, which has a Conservative majority, to make a "fair, impartial and thorough" assessment of the evidence. He insisted there had been no scandal. "There was no wrongdoing by anyone at BMARC and there was certainly no wrongdoing by me," he said.

Earlier though, Keith Hampson, a Conservative committee member and long- time supporter of Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister and former President of the Board of Trade (it was Mr Heseltine who in a surprise statement to the Commons last summer confirmed the earlier disclosure in the Independent that there was evidence BMARC guns had gone to Iran and invited the committee to investigate) had taken Mr Aitken to task for his recollection of his directorship of BMARC.

Mr Hampson queried Mr Aitken's claim that Project Lisi, the contract to supply 140 naval guns to Singapore, was not mentioned in the BMARC board minutes.

He said that in the minutes for the meeting of 27 June 1989 - which Mr Aitken did not attend, but as a director, he would have received the minutes - the second phase of Lisi, Lisi II, was "mentioned twice in a very prominent way." Lisi II appeared in a list of future sales, which strangely, commented Mr Hampson, otherwise detailed contracts by their country of destination. Mr Aitken stuck to his claim that he did not recall seeing any reference to Lisi.

Mr Aitken also dismissed suggestions that he should have been suspicious about a small country like Singapore ordering 140 naval cannons.

He accused Granada TV's World in Action programme - which he is suing for libel - of "suppressing" an interview with a defence journalist, Paul Beaver, who said it would have been possible for Singapore to have had a genuine use for the guns.