The tale of a tiny whopper. Alan Rusbridger is unconvinced by Jonathan Aitken's attempt to smooth over his downfall

Pride and Perjury

Jonathan Aitken <em>HarperCollins, 400pp, £19.99</em>

ISBN 0002740753

Tuning into Paxo's radio show the other day, I heard a male voice I thought I knew. The man was explaining why he couldn't repay his creditors because bankrupts were allowed to earn only £20,000 a year. In the same day's Telegraph, Jonathan Aitken (for it was he) patiently repeated the point to an interviewer: as a bankrupt, he could earn only 20 grand a year.

Well, you learn something new every day, I thought. Later in the week, I passed on my newly acquired knowledge of bankruptcy law to a solicitor. "Absolute tosh," he exclaimed. "A bankrupt is only allowed to keep 20 grand. He can earn as much as he sodding well likes." I confess that I felt slightly crestfallen. This was New Aitken, the man whose Rolex had undergone a religious visitation on the beach at Sandwich Bay. The man who had gone down on his knees with an improbable figure, the sales and marketing director of Sweet'n'Low plc, to pray for my soul. Surely New Aitken was different from Old Aitken? New Aitken was surely above, well, lying?

That was before I had read the book, so I suspended disbelief. Reviews by sympathetic friends dribbled out. They generally adopted the Small Lie theory of Aitken's downfall: a noble man caught out telling a tiny whopper. This is the theory that his tiny whopper was insignificant compared to all the big ones the Guardian had told about him and how he really (apart from the tiny whopper) won the libel case.

A copy of Pride and Perjury eventually arrived. It is an astonishing story, and Aitken tells it well. He has an easy style and a humorous eye for character and detail. A fair part of the book is the story of a religious journey. It seems pointless questioning how sincerely the journey has been undertaken, since that is unknowable, probably even by Aitken himself. For what it is worth, the book feels sincere on this score. More impressive still is the optimism with which Aitken writes about rediscovering his relationship with his children. There are remarkable passages, full of hope and resilience, about the discovery of his "other" daughter, Petrina, and about the transcendental state of mind he attained before the ordeal of prison.

It is the non-spiritual journey that presents more of a difficulty. Partly, this is a question of voice. Is this bit of the story being told by New Aitken or Old Aitken? If New, then one would expect it to be piercingly honest and to be informed by the spirit of reconciliation and understanding that Aitken acquires during his parallel spiritual journey. If Old, then one would be on one's guard for a certain amount of rewriting of history, score-settling and evasions.

The problem is that there is a mixture. Aitken is, for instance, impressively hard on himself over the morality of the lie that eventually sank him. It turns out that he set about covering up this lie in a manner that was utterly ruthless and calculating - right down to checking with a friend, a director of British Airways, whether ticket records were kept for over two years. He was aware of his Achilles heel long before we were. But while admitting to what he describes as his "hang tough" strategy of winning at all costs - employing any means, immoral or fair - he still appears bewildered and bitter that his opponents felt that they had no choice but to play hardball in return.

His honesty about the Ritz lie is not matched by his honesty about the circumstances surrounding it. One small example among many will do. Aitken tells of his dismay at opening the Telegraph on the day he was due to be charged with perjury and finding the headline: "I lied for my country, says Aitken". He rubbishes the story, which he says "was based on an unauthorised leak" of a witness statement from his friend, Said Ayas, and tells of how his "morale fell to a new low as I read and re-read both the headline and the formidable details". He fell to prayer to uplift his spirits. Nobody could guess from that paragraph that Aitken's close friend, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, had taken the story to the Telegraph on Aitken's behalf - and to Ayas's reported fury.The Telegraph let the cat out of the bag by faxing me the story the previous night. In its haste to rush into print, it forgot to delete the legend: "This comes direct from Aitken but cannot be sourced to him."

There seems little point in re-re-visiting the libel battle. His account is partisan, as you would expect. A reader with little knowledge of the case could be forgiven for believing that Aitken was on the point of breasting the winning tape before tripping over on a shoelace. The reality is that, with one exception, nothing the Guardian and Granada ever published (as opposed to pleaded in court in the run-up to the trial) was ever shaken in court or since. Our sole knock-back was the judge's ruling (in the absence of a jury) on the meaning of our story on the arms firm BMARC.

The allegation that Aitken inquired whether girls might be found for his Saudi friends was never "withdrawn" or "destroyed", as his friends persistently allege: there were four witnesses waiting to testify about this when his case collapsed. But the disappointment about the book is the gaping hole at its centre. Those hoping for the mystery of the Ritz weekend to be explained will be disappointed.

We know (though not from this book) that, at the time of the Ritz weekend, Aitken's close friend and former business partner, Ayas, had been busy forming companies to ensure that both he and Prince Mohammed could benefit from huge commissions on arms sales. The money was to be paid into two offshore companies: one controlled by Ayas, the other by Prince Mohammed. We also know that Aitken was - at the same time that these bribes were being arranged - busy negotiating those same arms sales on behalf of HMG. We know that Aitken arranged a secret meeting with Prince Mohammed in Paris, pretending to his colleagues that he was on family business. We know that the Saudis paid his bills in Paris and Geneva, and that he lied and covered up both before the weekend and afterwards. We still don't know how all these pieces of the jigsaw fit together. Aitken insists that they don't: they are stray pieces from different jigsaws. In a curious passage about this episode, which is, after all, the heart of the book, he confines himself to rather lame rhetorical questions about the Guardian's evidence. His "denials" are carefully phrased and strangely muted. His difficulty is that Ayas set out the precise details of what Prince Mohammed and he were up to at the time of the Ritz weekend in a long and detailed affadavit, which Aitken cannot rebut. All the evidence, including the lengths to which he went to cover up his involvement, suggests Aitken is the missing piece of that jigsaw.

However, other mysteries are cleared up. We learn that charges against Ayas for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice were dropped after Aitken managed to persuade MI6 to have a quiet word with the Crown Prosecution Service. His costs were paid by the British taxpayer. This extraordinary intervention was, according to Aitken, "a wise one in the national interest" (and also the result of his prayers). One wonders about the national interest. Ayas is still in dispute with Prince Mohammed over millions of pounds he is alleged to owe him. It is not at all certain that the ruling powers in Saudi Arabia will view favours secretly bestowed on Ayas by the British state with unmitigated delight.

The book is an uplifting read, if only as a story of extraordinary human resilience. But what will Aitken do next? Will it be in the field of human rights or prison reform? Or will he head back, via Wycliffe Hall, to the pursuit of money through means fair or dubious?

Alan Rusbridger is editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy