Private vendettas that are of public concern

Political Commentary
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MANY years ago, when I first started to attend Conservative conferences, the chairman used to go through a little ritual. "May I also," she would say, "extend a very warm welcome to our friends from the press." These words would be greeted not with silence, still less with cries of "Scum", "Jackals" or "Chuck `em out", but with a current of approval, even a few murmured Hear, hears. I am not making this up.

This age has now disappeared. It is as remote as that of Addison and Steele. It is hard to say when the shift occurred. I should fix on the early 1960s: specifically, on the Vassall case in 1962, when the Conservative newspapers accused one of Harold Macmillan's ministers of having homosexual relations with a convicted spy, and another, more senior minister of culpable negligence. Macmillan's response was to set up a tribunal under Lord Radcliffe, of which he later wrote:

"I felt strongly that not only should the truth be searched [sic] but also that the purveyors of lies should be punished. It was important that an incipient McCarthyism should be stemmed without delay."

Two journalists were indeed punished. They were not, as it happened, those who had been most prominent in making the accusations which Macmillan was so determined to avenge. They were imprisoned for refusing to disclose their sources to the tribunal. Thereafter many newspapers were determined to revenge themselves on Macmillan and decided that he had to be brought down. So he was, in autumn 1963. And, though it was by illness, and a mistaken prognosis, he would not have been in the condition to resign so readily had it not been for the attacks on him in the papers throughout the preceding year, over the Profumo affair and other matters.

Since then the decline of deference has accelerated. The period of "Battling Maggie", as Lady Thatcher was called by the popular press, was aberrant. Or, rather, it was misleading: for the Tory tabloids praised her precisely because she could be portrayed in a manner hostile to traditional notions of deference. This, indeed, was the way in which Lady Thatcher chose to regard herself.

Since then, the Faustian bargain which she struck with the popular papers generally and Mr Rupert Murdoch particularly - easing his path, making the crooked straight and the mountains low - has produced its consequences. The Conservatives now hate the press as Labour never did.

They do not, however, propose to introduce a law of privacy (certainly Mr John Major does not wish to introduce one) because they do not want to make the breach complete. They think the lady is having a bit of a fling but hope she will come home in the end. She will - John, I promise you she will - irrespective of whether we have a law of privacy or not. Come the election, we shall unfailingly hear of Blair's Blitz on Bank Balances and Brown's Tax Bombshell.

No matter. In the meantime it has been decided that Mr Jonathan Aitken is to carry on his shoulders all the grievances of the Government. The Guardian and the Independent (but not, at the time of writing, Granada Television) are to bear the sins, if not of the world, then at least of what is still called Fleet Street.

Mr Aitken, churchwarden and Arabist, is suing the newspapers for libel. He is suing the Guardian for its allegations of improper business relations with Arab interests and for its charge, made also in Granada's World in Action programme, that he tried to procure girls for his Arab friends at a health farm of which he was a director. He is suing the Independent for its allegation that he knew that a company of which he was a director was exporting arms to Iran in contravention of government "guidelines".

The leading article in the current issue of the Spectator states: "This is nothing more than a private vendetta between one newspaper group [the Guardian and the Observer] and one rather colourful individual". On the contrary: the evidence is that this is now much more than a private matter. If it had been a private matter alone the Conservative Party would not have put Central Office at Mr Aitken's disposal, as it did.

Nor is this all. In 1970, shortly after his appointment as a junior minister, Lord Bethell wanted to sue Private Eye. He was told by the Cabinet Secretary, then Sir Burke (later Lord) Trend, that he could sue only with the consent of the Attorney-General and, more gratifyingly, only at government expense. Sir Burke explained that it would not be Lord Bethell who was suing but the government as a whole. Alternatively he could resign and sue as a private citizen. The Attorney, then Sir Peter (now Lord) Rawlinson, advised him to desist. Other ministers, however, told him he must sue to clear his name. This he did, resigning first and then winning, though he now regrets the whole business.

The Treasury Solicitor's guidance to permanent secretaries of May 1990 provides that law officers are precluded by the terms of their appointment from advising a minister in his personal capacity. Libel proceedings by a minister may, however, raise public interest issues. When a libel relates to the conduct of the minister in his official capacity, the public interest is clearly engaged and the law officers must be consulted. When the libel relates to the conduct of a minister in the performance of his official duties, and it is in the public interest that proceedings should be brought, the minister may be indemnified out of public funds for the reasonable costs of bringing those proceedings.

The allegations against Mr Aitken relate to the period before he became a minister. In different circumstances, five ministers have recently been reimbursed in respect of actions which they have begun: Lord Lawson, Lord Young, Mr Norman Lamont, Mr Richard Needham and the late Nicholas Ridley. Mr Neil Hamilton was not so fortunate. He was told by the whips that, to pursue his action against the Guardian concerning a trip to Paris not dissimilar from one by Mr Aitken, he would first have to resign from the Government.

What the late Edgar Lustgarten would have called his fatal error was to compare his own action to Mr Major's against Scallywag. To Mr Hamilton, himself a barrister, this was an apposite analogy. But our Prime Minister has no head for arguments en principe. He is a simple soul. Disinterring the case of Clare's Kitchen struck him as unforgivable. He was furious. So poor Mr Hamilton had to depart.

I do not know how Mr Hamilton's action against the Guardian is going, assuming it still is. These things take years. It may well be that there will be a general election before Mr Aitken's case comes to court, if it ever does. For the moment he and his party are trying to put the Guardian, the Independent, Granada Television and himself on all fours with the News of the World and Mr Richard Spring. My advice to Mr Major is to have a care, and to remember Vassall, Profumo and the fate of Macmillan.