15, Manor Court,
30 November 2001
Gavyn Davies OBE,
Chairman of the Board of Governors,
BBC Broadcasting House,
London W1A 1AA.
Dear Mr. Davies,
Please accept this as an appeal to the Governors' Program Complaints Committee concerning "Today" Radio 4 FM Friday 12 October 2001.
It is encouraging to read in the latest BBC Programme Complaints Bulletin the importance that you attach to handling complaints fairly, effectively and consistently. You may therefore be interested in this case, because the complaint has not been effectively resolved even though the issues seem quite fundamental.
The fundamental questions raised are as follows. Should someone who is known to to have deliberately mislead the public be presented in a BBC interview with no warning of his past record of deception? Is it acceptable for the BBC to interview someone as an expert, without revealing that he has personal and financial connections with the people who are the subject of the interview?
On 12 October the "Today" program on BBC Radio 4 included a discussion on the Saudi royal family. The BBC's Head of Program Complaints has confirmed that during this program Jonathan Aitken was introduced with the words "...former Conservative minister for Defence Procurement who knows Saudi Arabia well". (Letter dated 29 October, copy enclosed).
The program presented Jonathan Aitken as a reliable and impartial expert and interviewed him on the subject of the Saudi royal family while failing to mention either his record of deception or his personal connections with them.
In fact he is neither reliable nor impartial. As I pointed out in my complaint, Jonathan Aitken has a long history of deceit. On the 8 June 1999 he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice. The judge said to him "for nearly four years you wove a web of deceit" and described his offence as "calculated perjury pursued over a long period of time".
As regards his impartiality, Jonathan Aitken has long-standing business connections with the Saudi royal family which are a matter of public record. For example in 1988 he resigned as a director of the television company TV-am after it was revealed that through him the Saudis had secretly aquired a 15% stake in TV-am which had not been declared to the IBA. This stake dated back to 1981. (The Times 25, 26 February 1988). He sat on the board of Al Bilhad (UK) Ltd with his friend Al Said, chief aide to Prince Mohammed bin Fahd, and the Saudi prince as chairman.
Against this background, my complaint made three separate points, which are considered in order below.
The first point of the complaint was that in giving the introduction above, the BBC concealed Jonathan Aitken's history of deception from listeners. The Head of Programme Complaints gave two different reasons for not investigating this point and I appeal against his decision.
The first reason was that "Mr Aitken's conviction for perjury is unconnected with his expertise on the subject of the interview".
This statement is mistaken. Jonathan Aitken committed perjury and attempted to pervert the course of justice in his failed libel action which he brought against the Guardian Newspaper and Granada Television after they had stated, amongst other things, that he was financially dependent on the Saudi royal family. His lies concerning his hotel bill obscured the fact that the bill was paid by Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Fahd. He was at the hotel with Said Ayas, his Saudi friend and business associate of long-standing, who was also the godfather of his daughters and chief aide to Prince Mohammed bin Fahd. In short, his perjury was closely connected to the subject of the interview.
In any case the reason quoted above does not justify rejection of the complaint. There is no support in the Producers Guidelines for the implied assumption that someone with a proven public record of dishonesty on one subject will be reliable when discussing a subject that is unconnected.
The alternative reason given for failing to uphold the first point was as follows. The Head of Program Complaints writes of Jonathan Aitken's perjury "and as it is in any case so well-known that listeners would have needed no reminder of it"
This assertion too is mistaken. Many listeners do in fact need informing of Jonathan Aitken's unreliability. One example is my friend from Italy who had never heard of Jonathan Aitken before the program. If it was necessary for listeners to be informed of Jonathan Aitken's history of deception, then it surely fell far short of the BBC's standards for the Today Program to rely on the hope that most of them had already obtained the information from elsewhere.
I am not appealing against the refusal to uphold the second point of my complaint.
The third point of the complaint was the programmes's failure to mention Jonathan Aitken's personal and business connections with the Saudi royal family who were the subject of the interview.
The Head of Program Complaints has failed to consider this point adequately and I appeal against his decision. Firstly he has made a mistake in telling me that I complained about the way Dr al-Fagih was introduced, when in fact I said that the introduction was clear. He also writes that the way Jonathan Aitken was introduced was "factual" even though I did not question whether the introduction was factual.
Of the introduction for Jonathan Aitken quoted above, he writes "It might even be taken as a description of his connections to the country".
The point at issue is that the phrase "knows Saudi Arabia well" is a not an accurate description of Jonathan Aitken's connections to Saudi Arabia because it conceals his personal connections with the royal family who were the subject of the interview. Listeners might have formed a very different impression of his words had they been told that he was a friend and business associate of the family he was invited to speak about.
In addition to considering the above appeal I would ask the committee to also consider the the following question. In view of the fact that the Producers Guidelines state unequivocally "Our own research should be rigorous and accurate enough to screen out contributors who may be less than honest" (Chapter 3 Section 2 DEALING WITH CONTRIBUTORS), should Jonathan Aitken have been interviewed on this subject at all?
I enclose copies of the correspondence so far.