Aitken v The Guardian & Granada Television (1997): The Simple Sword of Truth and the Trusty Shield of Fair Play
Jonathan Aitken was a British Government Cabinet Minister and a Conservative Party MP for 24 years. He was elected as MP for Thanet East in 1974 and was a back-bencher while Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister. Thought of as a future Tory leader, also known for having had a relationship with Thatcher’s daughter and an affair with Sonya Khashoggi, the former wife of billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. The daughter of the arms dealer, Petrina Khashoggi, was Aitken’s biological child.
Under John Major in 1992, Aitken was the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. Previously, in 1988-1990, he had been a director of BMAC, an arms exporter and had many friends from the Arab world. In 1994, he was Chief Secretary to the Treasurer, which was a Cabinet position.
Back to September 1993, Aitken was seen one weekend at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Sounds fancy. At the same time, two former business associates, Said Mohammed Ayas and Wafic Said were seen there. The bill was paid by Prince Mohammed bin Fahd of Saudi Arabia, one of the richest men in the world. By accepting this payment, Aitken was violating Ministerial Rules, which is serious. No-one could find out, let alone an English newspaper.
In October 1993, The Guardian was tipped off about the story. They rang Aitken and he said that his wife paid for the bill. This might have worked if she hadn’t been in Switzerland at the time. First mistake.
Without knowing this, on 10 April 1995, The Guardian ran an article on its front page. It related to Aitken’s dealings with leading Saudis and an investigation that had been conducted by Granada’s TV World In Action Program. It was set to screen a documentary, “Jonathan of Arabia” about Aitken’s dealings with Mohammad bin Fahd. Among the program’s allegations, it alleged that Aitken procured prostitutes for Saudi friends at a health farm. It also made the claim that Aitken violated Ministerial Rules by allowing the Arab businessman to pay for his stay at the Ritz.
If nothing else, Aitken was glorious and magnificent in his opposition to the allegations. He called TV cameras to Conservative Central Office and announced that he would issue libel proceedings against The Guardian and Granada TV. He famously said this:
“If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight.”
So Aitken resigned from his Cabinet post and focused on bringing down the Fourth Estate. It would have helped if he didn’t have anything to hide. Nevertheless, Aitken rejected an offer from The Guardian to each walk away and bear their own legal costs and instead chose to fight the “good” fight to the bitter end. Which became very bitter.
At the trial in 1997, Aitken filed a signed witness statement that he prepared, which was signed by his 14 year-old daughter, Victoria. This backed up his story that he and his family were on holiday staying at the Ritz and that her mother, Lolicia had paid the bill.
But the Guardian dug a bit deeper. It managed to get their hands on British Airways flight coupons and Budget Car hire documents which showed that Aitken’s wife and daughter flew direct to Geneva and never visited Paris. The wife flew back from Geneva and the daughter went to Boarding School. The Guardian only got the information about Lolicia because the hotel where she stayed had just gone bankrupt and the receiver was willing to let a journalist look at the records. The simple truth was out.
Also, the owner of the Hotel was Mohammed Al Fayed, and in a complicated plot, he and the editor of The Guardian, had arranged for a copy of Aitken’s bill to be provided to The Guardian, on false pretences. Al Fayed, you see, did not want to be seen as the source of the information, and so while he knew, The Guardian had arranged for a “cod fax” to be sent to the hotel, asking for a copy of Aitken’s bill.
A “cod fax” you say? This was a fax falsely placed on House of Commons letterhead (which is totally illegal), falsely stating that it was from Aitken, asking that a copy of his bill be faxed to the newspaper. The bill was then sent out by one of the lackeys and the dominoes of Aitken’s “truth and fair play” started tumbling down.
Not only did Al Fayed know about this, he claimed that it was his initiative. He said it was in the interests of the public to out the information.
So Aitken’s simple sword of truth involved getting his wife, his 14 year old daughter and friends – to lie. Nice. And if you weren’t aware of that basic point, then the Guardian, a gracious and noble victor at the best of times, ran with Aitken’s picture on the front page of the next edition and a huge headline, “He lied and lied and lied.”
Soon after the trial, Aitken and his wife split up, Aitken was stripped of his membership of the Privy Council, and subsequently became a bankrupt. This didn’t stop the Crown bringing charges against him in March 1998 for perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice. He was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison, the first Cabinet Minister to be jailed. He served 7, the cancer of bent and twisted journalism had been taught a lesson indeed.