LEADING ARTICLE: The sword cuts both ways

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The Independent Online
Wielding the "sword of truth" and the "shield of fair play", Jonathan Aitken, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, came out fighting yesterday. All that was missing from his performance at Conservative Party Central Office was a few bars from "I Vow To Thee, My Country". That and a willingness to answer any questions from journalists. A statement that ends "thank you and goodbye" is not perhaps the best place to insist that you are prepared to defend your record "before the wider jury of all fair-minded people".

But then Mr Aitken is pretty fed up with journalists. He says that Britain harbours the best media and the worst media in the world. We know he does not think much of the BBC ("the Blair Broadcasting Corporation"), of the Independent ("a failing newspaper") for raising the issue of his membership of the board of a company selling arms to Iran and, presumably, of the MP-trapping Sunday Times. But the allegations contained in yesterday's edition of the Guardian and last night's World in Action on ITV took his ire to new levels. There was, he said, "a cancer in our society today ... the cancer of bent and twisted journalism". Bewilderingly, this leaves little more than the News Of The World, the People and Sky to represent the best of British journalism in Mr Aitken's eyes.

This newspaper has no knowledge of some of allegations made, particularly those about the procurement of women for a Saudi prince, which Mr Aitken emphatically denied. Those will, as the Chief Secretary said, be tested in front of a jury in the courts. But there are several questions that have been raised about Mr Aitken's past which are not susceptible to sweeping dismissal as malicious attempts to blacken an innocent man's reputation.

These include the unresolved question of how it could possibly be that, alone among the directors of an arms company, Jonathan Aitken had no knowledge, direct or indirect, of the destination of one of its most lucrative contracts. Or did he, like Nelson, put the telescope to his blind eye? Mr Aitken also said yesterday that he had not registered his directorship with a company linked to Lebanese arms traders because at the time there was no requirement to record such an unpaid position. But is this not a clear case of complying with the letter of a regulation and not its spirit? The directorship may have been unpaid, but Mr Aitken was not filling it at the behest of Oxfam or the RSPCA. Presumably, there was something to be gained from it - and that was why it should have been registered.

Mr Aitken's statement tells us that he has "certainly made his fair share of mistakes ... as a writer, businessman, parliamentarian and minister". Frankly, it is hard not to agree. But then it is, as someone once said, a funny old world, where ministers quietly resign because of their sexual proclivities and slope sadly off, while those with real questions to answer get the blue background treatment at Smith Square. It is, in the end, a question of morals.