Magazine article The Spectator

When Friendship Can Also Be Deception

Magazine article The Spectator

When Friendship Can Also Be Deception

Article excerpt

Acording to my friend Paul Johnson, with whom I've been thick for 40 years having first crossed pens about Suez - I was wrong, even unforgivably wrong, in not following his urging and example by writing in defence of our mutual friend, Jonathan Aitken. In fact as things stand between us at present, it seems all too likely that Paul will find it easier to remain on good terms with his relatively new friend Jonathan, who has quite certainly broken the laws of the land, than with his much older friend, me, who may or may not have broken the rules of friendship.

At first I thought Paul must be joking. While there might indeed be a case for a friend of Jonathan to say nothing, I could not begin to see how there could be a case for speaking out in his defence. Indeed, as Paul's article went on to show, there wasn't. But that, I think, was his point. Greater love has no journalist than to make the supreme sacrifice of putting his reputation as an homme serieux at risk for his friend. Paul gallantly did make that sacrifice and on reflection I am beginning to see that I may have been at fault in not agreeing to do likewise.

After all, by last week there was no question of Jonathan getting his way with his lies; no question of his career in politics not having been stopped in its tracks. In such circumstances - i.e. once it was certain that the public interest had been secured perhaps the claims of friendship should have been allowed to take precedence over the obligation to tell the truth. While to write an eloquent apologia for Jonathan before his public fate was sealed would have been journalistically irresponsible, to do so afterwards - as Paul did and urged me to do - was to combine the role of the good citizen and the good friend.

Heaven knows, the media chorus condemning the public man was more than loud enough to have drowned out one or two dissenting descants of sympathy for the private man. So there was no danger of the common weal being damaged by too many attempts to pardon the unpardonable. In fact the much more obvious danger was an excess of condemnation, which it was the duty of Jonathan's friends to try to balance by an equal excess of special pleading. In other words, Paul, unlike PW, may have done the loyal and honourable thing.

In a much more serious context, of course, these same kinds of questions arose over Anthony Blunt and the other spies for the Soviet Union. Should their friends have informed the authorities about their suspicions, rather than allowing themselves to be persuaded into silence - in effect into a cover-up - by E.M. Forster's now notoriously influential statement that if ever he had to choose between betraying his friend or his country he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country? I am sure that in these cases Paul would have rejected Forster's advice with scorn and put his public duty as a citizen firmly before his private duty as a friend. For by not doing so the friends of the spies allowed the spying to continue, and with the benefit of hindsight it is now clear that this was to accord the duties of friendship a truly sick and perverted priority.

But what about the case of Anthony Blunt, the Fourth Man, whose treachery was exposed only years after his capacity to do any further harm to the public weal was long since over - how should his friends have reacted in those very different circumstances? …

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