Sunday, 10 October 2021

Britain, a country where The Guardian publishes the 'Pandora Box Papers' while an old and once disgraced politician, Jonathan Aitken, enjoys his third year as an Anglican Priest

Jonathan, who is 79 years old, has had an interesting and eventful life spent largely, but not exclusively, in the upper reaches of British society. Born in the Autumn of 1942 during the Second World War, in Dublin, the son of Penelope, whose grand father was there serving the British Government as  Representative to Éire, while his Canadian-born father, William, was serving as a pilot in the Royal Airforce. The Taoiseach of Ireland, the great Éamon de Valera asked to attend baby Jonathan's christening at St Patrick's Anglican Cathedral, and his presence at the baptism was symbolic of improving Anglo-Irish relations. Also there, was Princess Juliana of the Netherlands who was named as his godmother.

Still in Dublin after the War ended,  Jonathan's father was recovering in Britain after being severely injured when his Spitfire was shot down in the War and in 1946, Jonathan himself, at the age of four, contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to Cappagh Hospital, Dublin, where he was an inpatient on a TB ward for more than three years. While there he was cared for and educated by Catholic nuns and after being discharged from hospital, was taken to Britain. Here he lived with his parents at Halesworth, Suffolk, and learnt to walk properly again within a few months. In accordance with his life of privilege he joined the prestigious, independent boys school, Eton College in 1953 and read law as an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford in 1960.

Having graduated from Oxford he started a career in journalism, served as a war correspondent during the wars in Vietnam and Biafra and gained a reputation for risk-taking when he took LSD in 1966 as an experiment for an article in the London Evening Standard. After a bad trip, he reported : 'This drug needs police, the Home Office and a dictator to stamp it out'. He related this period in his life in the 'Daily Mail' in 2017 in an article titled : 'My Summer of Love at the pop festival that changed the world 50 years ago'. In 1968 he graduated to television and for the next two years presented the regional news programme for Yorkshire Television.

In 1970, at the age of 28, he hit his first choppy waters when he was called to The Central Criminal Court of England and Wales at the Old Bailey where he was was acquitted for breaching section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, when he photocopied a report about the British Government's supply of arms to Nigeria and sent a copy to The Sunday Telegraph and to the Conservative MP, Hugh Fraser, a pro-Biafran in the Nigerian Civil War. As a part of the fall out, Jonathan's political ambitions were temporarily thwarted when he was dropped as the Conservative candidate for the Thirsk and Malton parliamentary constituency.

He entered Parliament as MP for Thanet East at the age of 32 and scuppered his chances of high office in the three Thatcher Governments from 1979 - 80 after he managed to offend her by ending a relationship with her daughter, Carol and suggesting to an Egyptian newspaper that Thatcher "probably thinks Sinai is the plural of Sinus". He stayed on the backbenches for 11 years, but hit the news again, when taking part in the re-launch of TV-AM, broadcaster Anna Ford threw her wine at him to express her outrage at his behaviour.

Before he finally made it to the higher reaches of Government at the age of 50 as Minister of State for Defence Procurement under Prime Minister John Major in 1992 partly because he had previously been a Director of BMARC, an arms exporter. His downfall came in 1995 when a House of Commons motion showed that while a Cabinet minister he had signed a controversial Public Interest Immunity Certificate (PIIC) back in 1992, relating to the Matrix Churchill Trial, and that the 'gagged' documents included ones relating to the supply of arms to Iran by BMARC for a period when he was a Director of the Company. By this time he was a member of the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and was forced to resign on the basis of the allegations that he had violated ministerial rules.

On 10 April 1995, The Guardian carried a front-page report on his dealings with leading Saudis and the story was the result of a long investigation carried out by journalists from the newspaper and from Granada Television's 'World in Action' programme. It made allegations that he breached ministerial guidelines when a Saudi Arabian business associate had paid his bill at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. In substance it said that he had done the bidding of the Saudi Royal Family and had worked since the 1970s as a glorified fixer. He called a press conference at the Conservative Party Offices in Smith Square, London, at 5 p.m. that same day denounced the claims and demanded that the World in Action documentary, which was due to be screened three hours later, withdraw them. 

He melodramatically said:

"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 British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight. The fight against falsehood and those who peddle it. My fight begins today. Thank you and good afternoon".

The World in Action film, "Jonathan of Arabia"', was transmitted as planned and Jonathan carried out his threat to sue. The action collapsed in 1997, a month after he had lost his seat as an MP  in the General Election, when The Guardian and Granada produced, produced evidence countering his claim that his wife, Lolicia had paid for the hotel stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. The evidence consisted of airline vouchers and other documents showing that his wife had, in fact, been in Switzerland at the time when she had allegedly been at the Ritz in Paris. It was further alleged that he been prepared to have his teenage daughter Victoria lie under oath to support his version of events, had the case continued.

Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Gaurdain emerged from the High Court triumphant. He said Jonathan  had "impaled himself on the `simple sword of truth'. For three years he has lied to newspapers, lied to the Cabinet Secretary, lied to the Prime Minister and lied to his colleagues. Now he has made his fatal mistake by lying on oath to the High Court".

He was now charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice and, after pleading guilty on 8 June 1999 to both offences, was jailed for 18 months and served almost seven of those as a custodial sentence in Belmarsh Prison. Apparently, chatting one night with an Irish burglar called Paddy, and after rejecting his offer of hardcore pornography, Jonathan started talking about prayer. He recalled : “Paddy told me ‘I would like to try that.’ We prayed together four nights in a row. He had qualities of a good recruiting sergeant and before we knew it we had an armed robber, a pickpocket, a burglar, a safe blower and a murderer. We talked, shared and prayed. Remarkable things happened. It might not sound much but young men stopped swearing, threw away the porn mags, stopped picking on pariah prisoners and started being civil to prison officers”.

While in prison he studied the Bible, learned Greek and after his release in 2000, took a degree in theology at the University of Oxford. In 2000 he said, with apparent humility, that he would not become a vicar because he is not worthy of the office and "wouldn't like to give dog-collars a bad name". 

His literary effort to cover this part of his life consisted of his two autobiographical works : 'Pride and Perjury' published in 2003 and 'Porridge and Passion' in 2006. In the same year he became Honorary President of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. His literary ventures with a Christian theme were : 'Psalms for People Under  Pressure' in 2004 and 'Prayers for People under Pressure' in 2006. The following year he wrote a biography of the 18th century English slave trade captain who was redeemed and became the Anglican clergyman John Newton, 'John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace'. 

In 2010 he published his book, 'Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan: From Communism to Capitalism' in which he described the President as a popular and compassionate leader, who had built a successful economy and rid his country of Soviet-era nuclear weapons.  In the acknowledgements to his book, he thanked the Kazakh Foreign Ministry. It had paid for his hotels in Astana, the country’s capital and Almaty, he said. Beyond this, Reuters reported that Aitken told the Agency he received no payment from the Kazakh Government. In view of the recently revealed 'Pandora Papers' by the Guardian, this appears to be at variance with the truth. Said to be the largest trove of leaked data exposing tax haven secrecy in history which provide a rare window into the hidden world of offshore finance, casting light on the financial secrets of some of the world’s richest people.

At the time the critics were unconvinced by the quality of the book. The Guardian described the biography as 'a fascinating, cleverly orchestrated snow job: quite probably the hagiography of the year'. The London Review of Books was similarly damning and said its flattery ranged 'from the banal to the cringing'. All remarked that it glossed over Nazarbayev’s autocratic behaviour and intolerance of dissent. Torture by his security forces was widespread and 'carried out with impunity', Amnesty International noted.

Back in April 2010 Jonathan had flown flew to Washington for the launch of his book. “Biographers are artists on oath,” he told an audience of senators and diplomats. “They like painting on a broad canvas.” He added: “I have never had a more dramatic and turbulent canvas than the life story of Nazarbayev”. The Pandora Papers now reveal that Jonathan's speech at the prestigious Library of Congress failed to mention one crucial point : that a PR firm working for the Kazakh Government appears to have secretly commissioned and paid for his book. According to Papers Jonathan got £166,000 for his literary effort. The money was paid in tranches from 2007-2010 and was routed via Hong Kong and the British Virgin Islands and discreetly sent to Oxford and the ex-MP’s company, 'Aitken Consultancy & Research Services Limited'.

According to the documents, the PR firm, WorldPR, picked up the bill for Jonathan's overseas book tour. His expenses included a stay at the Capital Hilton, two blocks from the White House. Aitken’s $1,527 receipt – found in the leak – lists three nights’ accommodation, laundry, a meal in the bar and grill, as well as 'Twigs Restaurant', plus high-speed internet access. The PR company paid the Library of Congress $6,996 for venue hire, with the Kazakh Embassy bankrolling a later speaking engagement at New York’s Harvard Club.

According to the documents, the under-the-table payments were made by WorldPR, a firm run by Aitken’s one-time press adviser Patrick Robertson. Robertson is Kazakhstan’s honorary consul to the Bahamas. Its website says WorldPR has 'worked for multiple Kazakhstan government departments and agencies since 2004'. Other clients include the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and Azerbaijan, another oil-rich post-Soviet state known for persecuting opponents, while it also ran a 'Global Britain' campaign.

According to the leaked files, WorldPR bought 3,000 private copies of Aitken’s book from the publisher Continuum, now a part of the Bloomsbury Group. This cost £30,000. Overall, the biography sold just 466 actual copies, bought by the public from bookshops and online. Robertson spent $96,000 in Russia on “media consultancy services” and paid a Moscow publisher $116,000 to translate Aitken’s follow-up book, 'Kazakhstan and Twenty Years of Independence'. The deal included 10,000 Russian language copies and a media launch.

Jonathan was rewarded for his biographical labours with a medal from the Kazakhstan Government and in 2017 the Kazakh Ambassador to Britain, Erlan Idrissov, gave him a Government Award and said it was in honour of Aitken’s contribution to promoting the country’s global reputation. 

In 2016 he told 'The Times', after being asked : Had he really changed? “I’m still troubled by the same faults and flaws. Pride and arrogance are my great weaknesses. At least I can see the little demon creeping up my arm now”. He told the paper that he lived on pensions from his time as a banker and an MP, earnings from his writing and a consultancy that he runs with his son William for British businesses starting up in China. He said : “I’m not on the breadline. I don’t lack anything. I’m fine. Praise the Lord”.

Three years before the 'Pandora Papers' saw the light of day, in the summer 2018, Jonathan was ordained in the Church of England as a deacon and served as the Chaplain of Pentonville Prison. Finally, exactly one year after becoming deacon he was ordained as an Anglican priest in St Mary's Church, Stoke Newington, by the Bishop of London. The ordination ceremony was the first to be conducted by a female bishop of London - the Rt Rev Sarah Mullally. A celebration after the service was due to take place at the Old Bailey, where he was handed his prison sentence 19 years before. A statement from the Diocese of London, in 'The Telegraph', at the time said :  

"Jonathan Aitken, like his fellow candidates, has been through the Process of Discernment. Once ordained, his specific focus will be on prison ministry".

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