28 MARCH 1998, Page 19


The Aitken case: who is holding the scales of justice tilted?


Three aspects of the latest phase in the Guardian-Aitken saga require comment. First, now the authorities have acted against Jonathan Aitken, why are some newspapers blatantly ignoring the sub judice rules and continuing to publish state- ments and opinions about the case calculat- ed, in some instances deliberately, to preju- dice a jury against him? The pack, of course, is led by the Guardian, which on Saturday made a tendentious story, 'GEC severs Aitken link', its front-page lead. The implication of the report was that in GEC's view Jonathan Aitken was guilty as charged. And the Guardian continues to circulate a book entitled The Liar which repeats untrue material it was forced to withdraw during the early stages of the abortive libel case and is overwhelmingly prejudicial. The Times report and comment on Saturday were also damaging, implying as they did that Aitken's own family and friends thought him guilty. The Sunday Telegraph followed this up with a lengthy comment which, in my view, was in con- tempt of court virtually from start to finish. The chances of Aitken receiving a fair trial are now absolutely nil. The judicial authori- ties should take note — and action.

The second point concerns the decision to prosecute Aitken. Lawyers will tell you that it is one thing to accuse a person of perjury, quite another to prove it That is why the police are notoriously unwilling to prosecute anyone for lying under oath in the witness box even in criminal cases. Civil cases in general, and libel actions in particular, are something the police steer well clear of even when perjury is seen to pay. Witness the sen- sational case of the three Labour big shots who successfully sued this journal for libel in the 1950s by lying through their teeth in front of the Lord Chief Justice, Goddard. Dick Crossman often boasted of how they had got away with it and collected damages. The police were not interested.

So how come that in the Aitken case they are going to such trouble and expense to convict a man who, in the opinion of most people, has already been punished with grotesque severity for anything wrong he may or may not have done? The answer is that, under pressure from the Guardian and its friends in high places, they felt they had no alternative. At a time when police forces throughout the country are declining to take action in blatant cases of criminality because they lack sufficient resources — I came across a shocking example in Somer- set this week — enormous quantities of money and police time are being expended in hounding Aitken. The man who is crack- ing the whip over the police is• of course Alan Rusbridger, the most vindictive man ever to spread his slime over a distinguished editorial chair. Immediately after the case collapsed he wrote to the police demanding they prosecute Aitken for perjury, with the unspoken but implied threat that, if the authorities hesitated, his paper would pur- sue them. In view of the Guardian's unri- valled reputation for character assassina- tion, it is not surprising the police complied and have been roaming all over Europe at Rusbridger's imperious bidding.

Why Rusbridger is so remorseless in his desire to `get' Aitken is a mystery, and who am Ito peer into the depths of such a sul- phurous soul? But a possible explanation is that in the early stages of the case he got the fright of this life, believing it would be lost, that the damages would be enormous and that he would then be fired by 'Sacker' Young, chairman of the Scott Trust, who has already given the chop to four editors in the group. Rusbridger was saved at the last moment by Mohamed Fayed, who pro- duced information from the Ritz Hotel's records of phone calls which, as Stephen Glover explained in these pages last week, enabled the Guardian to force Aitken to drop the case on the narrow but crucial issue of the hotel bill.

Fayed's use of the phone records was typical of the way in which he exploits his privileged position as head of such firms as the Ritz and Harrods to spy on his clients and their activities and use the results for his own disgusting purposes. Indeed, Fayed's information has always constituted the core of the paper's case against Aitken. He is, for the Guardian, a man after its own sleazy heart. His propensity to betray his clients' trust has now got Fayed into serious trouble and he could well be brought to trial, accused of breaking into Harrods' safety deposit boxes and stealing the con- tents. It will be interesting to see how Rus- bridger's Guardian covers the Fayed trial, as hitherto the more nefarious activities of Chairman Fayed have been largely a no-go area for the paper.

This brings me to the third point. Fayed wanted to supply Rusbridger's predecessor as editor of the Guardian, Peter Preston, with Aitken's Ritz Hotel bill. Fayed's advis- ers, Mark Griffiths, Royston Webb and Michael Cole, opposed this on the grounds that it would damage the Ritz's reputation. But Fayed agreed to a formula devised by Preston, whereby the Guardian would forge a letter from Aitken on the MP's House of Commons writing paper asking the Ritz for a copy of his bill to be faxed back. The fax was signed with the forged signature of Aitken's private secretary, a senior civil servant, but it gave a Guardian fax number. In short, the Guardian obtained the key document in its case against Aitken by a conspiracy to com- mit a serious criminal offence. The conspira- cy was Preston's idea, but the forged letter itself, and the forged signature, were the work of one of his underlings, David Pallis- ter. How many people took part in the offence is not clear. But though the identity of all those involved is not established, there is no doubt about the principal conspirators, Preston, Fayed and Pallister. Here was and is a classic case of conspiracy to forge a docu- ment. The conspiracy succeeded, Aitken's career and reputation were ruined and he was landed with a legal bill of £2 million, which will force him to sell his home. I can- not recall so clear a case of crime paying, and being seen to pay. The Guardian's propagan- da book about the case, on pages 71-73, boasts about the forgery and its success.

In terms of criminality, there is not a great deal to choose between committing perjury to pervert the course of justice and commit- ting forgery. Why, then, are the authorities prosecuting Aitken and others, but leaving Preston and his co-conspirators strictly alone? If the police had washed their hands of the entire messy business and said, 'Libel is a civil matter and people lie during libel cases and engage in dirty tricks, but it is not our affair — we have better things to do', their response would have been understand- able. But to intervene on one side and not on the other, to take up one possible case of crime but to ignore another equally serious one which is actually admitted, is indefensi- ble. It is a mockery of justice and a case of selective law enforcement crying to heaven for vengeance. We all know the press has too much power in this country, but this is the first case I can recall in which a newspa- per has been able to make the police do its bidding while remaining entirely above the law itself. It is a scandal and one that Parlia- ment should examine with all deliberate speed. Why are the scales of justice being tilted? And who, exactly, is doing the tilting?