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Tuesday, June 8, 1999 Published at 20:13 GMT 21:13 UK

UK Politics

Guardian hails 'victory for free speech'

Jonathan Aitken: Jailed for 18 months

The editor of the newspaper that exposed Jonathan Aitken's lies has said the case should serve as a warning to anyone who exploits libel laws to hide the truth.

Former Tory colleagues of Aitken have expressed their sadness that his glittering political career ended in disgrace.

But the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger said he hoped the prosecution and jailing of the former Tory Cabinet minister would serve "the cause of free speech".

Aitken was jailed for 18 months on Tuesday after he admitted committing perjury and conspiring to pervert the course of justice in his libel action against The Guardian and Granada TV in 1997.

[ image: Alan Rusbridger: Aitken would have won millions]
Alan Rusbridger: Aitken would have won millions
After sentencing, Mr Rusbridger issued a statement, saying the case had been about more than Aitken's fate.

"It was about the dishonest misuse of our libel laws to close down legitimate scrutiny of the people we elect to govern us," he said.

"If Mr Aitken had won, he would have dishonestly taken up to £2m from The Guardian by way of costs and aggravated damages.

"The case should serve as a warning to future litigants who may be set on stifling scrutiny.

"Libel is not a game: it is too often used by the rich, the powerful and the crooked to suppress proper reporting and fair comment.

"No one using the law against others can complain if the law is, in turn, used against them.

"We can only hope that this case may, unwittingly, have served the cause of free speech after all."

'Aitken will cope'

A jail term had seemed inevitable ever since Aitken pleaded guilty to two charges at his trial in January.

[ image: Lord Lamont: Once tipped Aitken as a future prime minister]
Lord Lamont: Once tipped Aitken as a future prime minister
His friend, former Tory chancellor Lord Lamont, said the sentence was "much as expected, but still very sad."

He added: "I am sure he will cope. He is very resilient and supported by a marvellous family."

Aitken's one-time Cabinet boss, former Foreign Secretary Malcom Rifkind defended his decision to appear as a character witness at the sentencing hearing.

He said Aitken had done excellent work when he worked as defence procurement minister.

"The public interest benefited as a result and I was quite happy to make that clear," he said.

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