David Aaronovitch: A flawed man, but he should be in therapy, not prison

'Archer's downfall says as much about the manias that we share as it does about his own psychosis'
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The Independent Online

On the evening of Tuesday 15 December 1987, according to the diaries of Woodrow Wyatt – absurd old Thatcher courtier and tool of Rupert Murdoch – the author took in three parties, starting with a do at 11 Downing Street, and finishing up at Jeffrey Archer's penthouse apartment. There, Wyatt encountered Robert Maxwell, who told him how well the Daily Mirror was doing. Wyatt's view was that Maxwell was a "buccaneering crook". Mary Archer, on the other hand, was looking very pretty and very expensively dressed, and had earlier told a mutual friend, recorded Wyatt, that "she had now got Jeffrey absolutely under control." She then passed a finger across her throat.

It seems an era ago. Maxwell, Archer and Wyatt: two dead now, and the third sent to jail. Perhaps Jonathan Aitken was also at the party somewhere, speaking to Neil Hamilton. They were brutal times, those Thatcher war years, when there were possibilities of promotion for people who would never have made it in times of peace. The sentencing of Lord Archer to four years' imprisonment, in the week that Michael Portillo's career ended, feels like the final act of settlement against the Thatcher Ascendancy. We got them all in the end, except Murdoch, and even his power is a shadow of what it was.

Now we can call them what we like, these goblins who presided over us, and who called us "the enemy within". We can dub Archer a liar, an adulterer, a libertine, a perjurer and just about anything else we fancy, and there's nothing he can do about it. Rarely has there been so much freude to be had from one man's schaden. Fatal flaws and all that. Life stranger than one of his own stories. Whatever.

Excuse me if I turn away from the window for a moment, and leave others to hurl ordure at the tumbril as it passes by. I think four years is a harsh sentence, in a world where a man – convicted several times of violent offences – can get just six years for backing his lorry in a road-rage fury and crushing a two-year-old girl to death. Archer did nothing like that. Who did he kill? No one. Whose life did he wreck? Again, no one's. Monica Coghlan's existence was not ruined by Archer. Who did he rob? Only the Daily Star, and, try as I might, no tears will come. He certainly is no Maxwell, and even Maxwell spent no time in chokey.

Archer has written books that are enjoyed by benighted millions, raised (as one of his supporters reminded us yesterday) a great deal of money for charity, and has otherwise swanned around being ridiculous. He was pompous, blustering, self-important, desperate for attention, hungry for a power that never could be his and – ultimately – unhinged. He was a Harry Enfield character and his downfall says as much about the manias that we share as it does about his own psychosis.

For instance, judges come badly out of the Archer story. In the original libel case Mr Justice Caulfield, summing up, was to become famous. Why, he asked, would someone hitched to the "fragrant" Mary Archer want to have "cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex" with a prostitute? This was unwordliness on a par with the prosecution's invoking of shocked servants in the Lady Chatterley case. No, prejudice more than unworldliness. After all, when asked in that trial the question, "how important is fidelity to you?" Mary Archer had replied, "It's moderately important. I mean I suppose it depends on what you mean by fidelity. I think loyalty is important. If you mean strict sexual fidelity it doesn't rank terribly high on my scale of importance of things in a quite objective sense." These are the words of someone whose husband fools around by agreement.

And yesterday Archer was told by Mr Justice Potts that, "these charges represent as serious an offence of perjury as I have had experience of and have been able to find in the books." Really? Every time someone pleads not guilty and enters the witness box and is found guilty, then there must have been a perjury. Worse, our system of adversarial justice is an invitation to perjury, with competing counsels seeking to make the best possible case rather than committed to the truth.

Our sexual mores stand exposed by the case as well. Woodrow Wyatt noted in 1986, when the Coghlan case first broke, that "he [Archer] must be really mad". (A footnote adds, "If he had acted in the way alleged"). Wyatt goes on to explain that, after all, "he could easily get a respectable girl to go to bed with him." Wyatt always thought Archer was lying and should just have fessed up. It is an absurd country where consenting sex conducted in private becomes a public cause célèbre.

But what's respectable? A more recent mistress of Archer's, actress Sally Farmiloe (who once had a minor part in Howard's Way, as they say), sold her story to the News of the World for £100,000. This recounted how, during the mayoral campaign, she and Archer absented themselves from a Tory party ball to go and have sex in a car park.

The powerful emerge from this looking pretty absurd as well. Thatcher made Archer deputy chairman of the party (albeit more a cheerleading than a leading role), John Major had him ennobled and Hague endorsed him as the official Conservative candidate for mayor of London. In each case they saw in him traits that were useful, and ignored those that were plain silly. As his biographer, Michael Crick, points out, "not only did senior politicians go to his parties, but other luminaries such as Archbishops of Canterbury also used to regularly go."

Then there are his friends and toadies, whose own ethics seemed pretty elastic. They castigate him now for suborning them, but suborned they allowed themselves to be. Why did any of them agree to give false alibis or create false diaries? Was it really fear, or did they enjoy their association with the famous novelist too much?

And what about the tabloid papers who now rage about Archer the liar? They themselves lie routinely. In the last month we have seen two newspapers completely fabricate interviews with the elderly mother of the Spanish man accused of the murder of Caroline Dickinson. These journalistic frauds have been well documented, but there has been no enquiry or apology. The motive was sales and therefore money, so are they not as bad, if not worse, than Archer?

Above all, it was their prurient interest that got us here in the first place. Why did they care whether the deputy chairman was having a relationship with a prostitute? Why was it their business? Archer was never a moral majoritarian, preaching restriction while practicing looseness. Silly old Wyatt got this one right morally. "Though I think the prostitute was telling more of the truth than Archer," he wrote at the time, "it was probably a good thing that Archer won his case. It may curb newspapers writing about the private lives of politicians." If only. After Archer came Mellor.

No, Jeffrey Archer is no great villain. He is a lightning conductor of the minor sins of the modern age, and he should be in therapy, not in prison.