Media-Hit British Official Just Says No

Conservative politicians take the offensive against press on the prowl

PRINCE Charles braved it. Prime Minister John Major suffered it. But John Aitken isn't taking it.

The senior Cabinet minister is biting back at intense media scrutiny that has spoiled the careers of many of Britain's leaders. He announced April 10 that he is suing the Guardian newspaper for printing what he claims are ''wicked lies'' about his alleged links with Arab businessmen.

Since Mr. Major came to office three years ago, Conservatives have been blasted with a stream of sleaze charges and forced resignations -- and have seen 17 of their fellows quit over allegations of sexual impropriety or accepting cash for political favors.

Major, Britain's most unpopular prime minister in 50 years, last year tried to take the high ground by establishing a commission to set standards of public life. He also set up informal rules that demand an immediate resignation when impropriety is revealed.

Many Conservatives now feel put on the defensive by the intrusive media, and they rallied around Mr. Aitken, a millionaire entrepreneur as well as No. 2 in the British Treasury. He insisted he was taking legal action against the Guardian ''not only to clear my name, but in the larger public interest.''

''If things go on as they have been, this government will be hounded out of office by a hostile media,'' one close associate said. ''Jonathan deserves full marks for realizing that, and deciding to do something about it.''

His move came 24 hours after a parliamentary aide, Richard Spring, was accused of sexual impropriety in the News of the World newspaper April 9. Under the informal rules imposed on ministers by Major last year, Mr. Spring immediately tendered his resignation.

For his part, Aitken has made no moves to quit. He strongly denies that he had over-close relations with Arab businessmen and that he failed to disclose his connections with arms-dealing firms.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, said his paper's story about Aitken's Middle East business links was ''the result of a careful, detailed, and lengthy investigation into Mr. Aitken's affairs.'' He added that the paper stood by the story.

On April 10, Granada Television broadcast nationwide a documentary containing much the same material as the Guardian report, but ran Aitken's news conference denials as well.

Aitken is adopting ''a high-risk strategy'' by attacking the media, says Ian Hargreaves, editor of the Independent. The newspaper reported in March that Aitken had been a director of a company which had traded illegally with Iran.

''Much of what Mr. Aitken had to say in his news conference was overemotional,'' says Mr. Hargreaves. ''We shall have to wait and see what case he makes in the courts.''

Friends of Aitken, whom some see as a future prime minister, say he is fed up with personal attacks on him and smears against the Conservative party.

Earlier this year, the Guardian reported that Aitken had accepted hospitality from Arab businessmen at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. At the time he strenuously denied the claim, but the paper repeated it in its story on April 10.

Aitken, a former journalist, is among a growing group of Conservative politicians who want to see curbs placed on the media in the form of a law of privacy.

A government white paper on privacy is under preparation. When it appears -- probably later this year -- it will likely concentrate on banning long-lens cameras and bugging devices.

The opposition Labour Party says it opposes unduly restrictive press laws, and has told Aitken that it plans to demand more information about the Guardian and Granada Television claims.

''It is regrettable that the details of Mr. Aitken's business career, and particularly his links with the Middle East arms trade, have to be forced out inch by inch in the face of a web of concealment,'' said Brian Wilson, Labour's trade and industry spokesman.

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