When the minister has to face the fax

The spin doctor's stray memo is remarkable in its frank and fearless analysis of Mr Aitken's options
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The Independent Online
I can understand how, if I had sent someone a fax which I later discovered they had not received, I might be able to trace the actual recipient. For instance, assuming I had not sent any other faxes, I might simply press the redial button. Or it might be that I still possessed a scrap of paper on which I had written down the incorrect number. What I cannot understand is how, having sent a fax astray, I could find out the name and telephone number of the recipient, particularly if that number was ex-directory.

But this is what the public relationers adviser, Patrick Robertson, appears to have achieved. He sent a fax, as he thought, to Jonathan Aitken's private secretary. This was received by a certain David Scholefield. The next day Mr Scholefield received, first, a fax asking for the "return" of the first fax, then a phone message on his answering machine, giving Mr Robertson's name and mobile phone number. Instead of "returning" the confidential fax (which was of course his physical property - I mean, he had bought the fax paper and put it into his own machine), Mr Scholefield showed it to the Independent on Sunday.

And I don't blame him. It's one of those occasions when, in retrospet, better manners might have saved both Mr Robertson and Mr Aitken the considerable embarrasment that has ensued. Mr Scholefield was, after all, being mildly inconvenienced by unsolicited (if fascinating) mail. But when he realised that somebody had managed the feat of identifying his name from his fax number, and further locating his ex-directory phone number, he felt that his privacy had been intruded upon.

But who would have the authority to extract the relevant information from BT, or the technology to extract it, as it were, without authorisation? And who would have the arrogance to pursue such researches, without realising that they might only make an awkward situation very much worse? Without pausing to think that people who go ex-directory normally do so for a good reason, and may well be annoyed to find themselves snooped upon in such a way.

It may seem a small point, in comparison with the very large points at issue in the Aitken affair. But still, one recalls that at the time of the cod fax fiasco, much was made of the Guardian's morality, or lack of it. The cod fax became the substitute issue, the diversion from the matter in hand, which was: who paid Mr Aitken's bill at the Paris Ritz?

Now we have the stray fax affair, which may well prove, in the words of the stray fax itself, that "one more bad story" which breaks the camel's back. The stray fax is remarkable in its forthrightness, admirable, one might almost say, in the way it dispassionately analyses the options open to Mr Aitken in what appears to be an awkward situation.

Last Wednesday morning, the stray fax reveals, Mr Aitken spoke to Mr Robertson about his fears that a certain Sunday tabloid would publish a story about him. Mr Aitken had planned to anticipate this attack by another strong attack on the media. The stray fax begs him to desist, since, as it fearlessly argues, "I am as certain as I can be that if you issue the statement in its current form you will be forced to resign within days."

Pre-emptive strikes do not work, says the stray fax, because they simply increase an editor's interest, especially if an editor thinks that a certain story is true. "If any stories do exist, then at this stage you have other instruments with which to fight them, including informal discussions with editors, warnings of legal action and a number of other things besides which I would be pleased to discuss with you."

At this point one might, perhaps, feel let down by the stray fax's coyness. What "other things" has the author in mind? But he is saving his courage for the next sentence - and he needs all the courage he can muster, for what he is about to say is: "If a story turns out to be true, you would be open to accusations of the worst sort of hypocrisy."

This shows us what I have never seen so vividly demonstrated, that a really good PR man, a top class spin-doctor, is not someone simply with the gift of the gab, someone who can talk his way out of a corner, but someone who is prepared to tell his client what he may least want to know: that is, in this case, if you are proposing to take the high moral ground as a means of suppressing a true story, you'll be done for. The only way, the stray fax argues, to stop a nasty story in the tabloids is to talk to the person involved. "Nothing else will work."

Admirable also is the conclusion that there is no point in worrying about the media and earning their hatred by attacking them, that "the only audience that matters, in my view, is the PM, the cabinet, your colleagues in Parliament and your constituency. At all costs we must keep them on board." That's a lot of people to keep on board, but I'm sure the stray fax is right to imply in this way that what the media and the general public think, doesn't matter a damn as long as the party is in support.

Mr Aitken has insisted that we believe of him a great deal of things which, while not absolutely unbelievable, require some effort. You need to be in training, as it were, to do all the believing he has planned for you, to get through the survival course of his credibility. You have to believe, for instance, that, when he was staying at the Ritz for a family gathering, his wife was staying elsewhere, but that she came along the next day to pay his bill, in part, as it turned out, and in cash. OK, I believe it. Truth is a messy thing. You have to believe that he had never heard of Project Lisi, even though he was a non-executive director of the firm involved. I find this easy to believe, although it forces me to think of him as a negligent sort of bloke, whereas I'd always previously thought of him as smart. You have to think that, from the point of view of BMARC, he was more a useful idiot than a shrewd operator. You have to believe him even though the story changes, as it did this week, when it was revealed that he had attended five, not three, of the BMARC board meetings.

Well, I believe all this and more. But it also seems that someone in his entourage, no doubt without his knowledge, went to considerable trouble to find out where the stray fax went, and that the resources of the state must have been used to track its recipient down. To state the case modestly, is this not an illustration of what one might call the Neil Hamilton doctrine, that it would be better for Mr Aitken to step down from the important position he occupies while he sets his affairs in order, fights his cases against the media, sets right the injustice that has been done to him, and sorts out what, at the very least, must be distracting him from his work?