Revealed - too late for us to care

Why does the new biography of Mark Thatcher disappoint? Not for want of facts, says Peter Koenig

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Now that it no longer matters, we are beginning to get the news on Mark Thatcher and how he profited because his mum was prime minister. A new biography of "the boy", whose three-part serialisation inthe Mail on Sunday began yesterday,fleshes out a story with which most in Britain will be familiar: there is money to be made from befriending oil-rich Arabsheikhs, and Mark Thatcher, via his mother, got in on the action.

The problem is that the information in Thatcher's Gold: The Life and Times of Mark Thatcher by Paul Halloran and Mark Hollingsworth comes so late and is so subtle at the level of factual detail that it is likely to appeal only to reporters and others who follow sleaze and intrigue on high as a matter of professional interest.

From the three-page spread published yesterday, we learn that Mark carried a message of goodwill from his mother to the ruler of Abu Dhabi while she was in 10 Downing Street, and so, allegedly, he gained a commercial advantage in the region. The report detailed an aborted scheme by Mark and others to get Mrs Thatcher appointed president of the Arab bankBCCI after she left power, before it was discovered the bank was crooked.

Despite years of serious work put in on the biography, what we get from a first sighting is a sense of letdown. Hordes of reporters and a substantial section of the public began a pursuit of Mark Thatcher more than a decade ago, intensely interested in his business career and how it overlapped with his mother's exercise of power in 10 Downing Street. What we get at the climactic moment of expos is adesiccated husk of what originally prompted our interest, a selection of facts that mock our original belief that through Mark Thatcher we might alter the basic perception of who his mother is and what she was about.

This phenomenon of letdown repeats itself over and over in British political life. Something happens. A large number of people know it happened. But no one can say it has happened, explore how it happened and what it means, and stay on the right side of Britain's libel laws. So the pursuit of telling what happens deteriorates into a game that preoccupies politicians and reporters, butbores the public. Years later, when it no longer makes a difference, the facts dribble out, by which time they serve as little more than cheap entertainment and, in so doing, confirm the public's deep- seated cynicism about politics and the media.

Today this cynical process exists at something close to the level of a system. Spin-doctors take mounting public despair at the prospect for change and manipulate it, to deactivate truths which might have ignited that despair into rage expressed politically.

Forget Mark Thatcher for a moment. Consider the pressures on the National Health Service, the rise of an underclass in Britain, the scandals in the City. Ask yourself where you last read narrative accounts of these stories that put the news, the background, and the individual characters of thepoliticians involved into anything like a context that is comprehensible in the way daily life is comprehensible.

There is reason to read the papers. But as the first instalment of the Mark Thatcher biography demonstrates, the game is to decipher the news and then to fit it into your own mental construct of what is happening in the country. Each person's mental construct is private or shared with friends. The public debate over what is happening in the country is ritualised and sterile.

Halloran and Hollingsworth have gone some way towards filling in the gaps about Mark Thatcher's business career and its relationship to his mother's time in power. They have offered us a glimpse of 10 Downing Street after hours.They showed how the Thatchers introduced their son to a circle of Denis's business cronies at the beginning of his career - and how in turn these business cronies were close tothe British government's efforts to win international business in the Eighties.

They showed that Mark got work from the British construction company Cementation, "after a meeting at Margaret and Denis Thatcher's home in 1979 with Victor (now Lord) Matthews, chairman of Cementation's parent company, Trafalgar House".

They reported that after the Cementation scandal of 1984 - during which Mark was accused of earning a commission from the company for facilitating a contract in Oman after his mother had promoted British business there - Denis Thatcher, Tim Bell, the then Tory Party treasurer Lord McAlpine, and another media adviser, Sir GordonReece, decided at a secret meeting at the Thatchers' Chelsea home that Mark should move to the US so as to remove him from the media spotlight.

The full extract of the biography is the most complete narrative of Mark Thatcher's life ever assembled. The known facts - the failed accountancy exam, the car racing, the work as an advertising model, the Al Yamamah arms deal (the £20bn sale of British Tornado jets to Saudi Arabia, from which Markearned commission as a middleman) - are placed in the context of the Thatcher family's inner circle of friends and associates.

This is impressive work. But it is too late;the facts have been robbed of their potency. "Are you buying the Mail for the Thatcher stuff?" my newsagent asked me this morning, "or is there something interesting in the paper?"

The overriding message of yesterday's materialis that journalism, even when it is practised as exhaustively as it can bein Britain, does not work very well.

By one of those strange coincidencesthat characterise Britain's intricately woven public life, this depressing theory is on the brink of getting something close to an acid test. This evening, World in Action will broadcast an investigation into the links between theTreasury Minister, Jonathan Aitken and the Saudi royal family. This story of British politics and the Middle East is timely because Mr Aitken is still in power and his fate could affect the fate of John Major's government.

Coming on the heels of reports about Mr Aitken's business ties to the Middle East, published in the Guardian and the Independent, the World In Action programme just might reveal enough more to create a critical mass of facts, which together will tell a story in full narrative form and not as disconnected "revelations".

Mr Aitken has rebutted all charges of wrongdoing concerning his dealings in the Middle East. His position is that his private dealings and public duties in the Middle East are in accord. But it is possible we are close to getting enough of a picture of Mr Aitken's dealings in the Arab world that the public can intelligently judge for itself on this point, rather than rely on the claims and counter-claims of politiicans and reporters.

World in Action reportedly rejected MrAitken's offer to debate his relationship with Saudi Arabia live in the studio. If this is so, it is a pity because it would have provided a rarespectacle: not thedesiccated pseudo-spectacle of the media exposing Mark Thatcher, but a senior government minister going up against his media inquisitors in a debate about a largely hidden dimension of British life at a moment when the outcome of that debate could count.

The author co-produced a Channel 4 documentary on Mark Thatcher in 1992, and will report in the forthcoming issue of `GQ' magazine on how Paul Halloran researched his biography.

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