Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, revisited the trial of Roger Casement, in search of a comma.
Roger Casement was tried, found guilty, sentenced and executed under the Treason Act of 1351. That was, and is (for it remains in force in English law to this day) quite an enlightened piece of legislation, in that it attempts to define and circumscribe what is involved in an act of treason. Essential to the conviction was whether or not Casement had been
adherent to the King’s enemies in his Realm, giving to them aid and comfort, in the Realm[,] or elsewhere.
Notice that critical second comma: if it’s there, Casement was indeed guilty, and Mr Justice Darling was entitled to read that “giving aid and comfort” were words of apposition: that is to say, if one took the side of the king’s foes, one was a traitor irrespective of whether one was in or out of the kingdom. On the other hand …
Casement had done his stuff in Germany, not in the lands of George V. Once back in Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom, he had behaved impeccably, surrendering to the police, and obeying the law. Serjeant Sullivan, imported for the occasion and a stranger to English courts, argued the 1351 Act:
neither created nor declared an offence of treason by adherence to the King’s enemies beyond the realm.
The precise wording meant:
the giving of aid and comfort outside the realm did not constitute a treason which could be tried in this country unless the person who gave the aid and comfort outside the realm, in the present case in the Empire of Germany, was himself within the realm at the time when he gave the aid and comfort .
It took the keen eyes of two learned judges, and a trip to the Public Record Office, to spot there might, just might, be a second comma. Anyway, the mood of the time probably made Sullivan’s nit-picking pointless, and so Casement was condemned. Presumptions of innocence and guilt tend to get a bit clouded when matters are so politically polarised, as they were in 1916.
A Malcolmian aside
That picture has a history in itself.
The presiding judge, Sir Charles John Darling, invited Sir John Lavery into the Court. Lavery had to keep his materials out of sight while he sketched. The finished version (above) was not completed until 1931, and remained in Lavery’s studio until the artist’s death in 1941. Casement is put at the centre, straight in front of the viewer, who is thus rendered judge and jury.
The painting became part of the Irish National Collection, and is generally to be found at the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin, though it came to London for restoration work in 2003 — which was its first display in the United Kingdom.
Yeats, however, put the painting (or was he thinking of some sketches for it?) in The Municipal Gallery Revisited as early as 1938:
Around me the images of thirty years:
An ambush; pilgrims at the water-side;
Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars,
Guarded; Griffith staring in hysterical pride …
How might this apply to the arrest, for perjury, of Andy Coulson?
Well, it might come down to a similar piece of pettifogging.
Another Malcolmian aside:
from the OED:
1. Originally: an inferior legal practitioner who dealt with petty cases; formerly occas. also as a professional name … (now hist.). Hence: a lawyer who engages in petty quibbling and cavilling, or who employs dubious or underhanded legal practices; a lawyer who abuses the law. Usu. derogatory.
- Tommy Sheridan represented himself at his perjury trial.
- He called Coulson as a witness.His crucial question to Coulson was: Did the News of the World pay corrupt police officers?”
- Coulson replied, “Not to my knowledge”.
Coulson could answer no other way: he would have been incriminating himself, for corruption law makes both briber and bribe-taker guilty.
But, even now, Coulson has a get-out: it may be the NotW didn’t pay off “corrupt” coppers, but honest ones. The NotW had no knowledge whether the individuals receiving dosh were “corrupt” or not. The paper was serving the wider good,covered by the public-interest defence: a small technical offence to expose a greater one, etc., etc. And with one bound our hero is free!
Coulson the escapologist
Sheridan also questioned Coulson on why he had left the NotW. As always, he gave the noble answer.
There had been a crime committed by a member of the NotW staff: Clive Goodman had been done for intercepting Clarence House telephone messages, and for that went inside on a four-month stretch. At that stage the NotW management were maintaining that Goodman was the single “bad apple”.
Coulson had accepted “taken the ultimate responsibility and stepped down” for this “illegal phone hacking”, even though —perish the thought! — he had “no knowledge of it”.
That has been Coulson’s consistent stated position. Sheridan had pressed him further, particularly over Goodman’s connection with Glenn Mulcaire, he of the numerous records. Coulson denied he had any awareness at all of Mulcaire, did not even know the name until Mulcaire’s arrest: “I never met him, spoke to him or emailed him.” The £105,000 the NotW paid Mulcaire was inexplicable to Coulson: this, and other outgoings, had been “made without my knowledge”. Coulson believed that just “five other people” had had their voice-mails hacked. We now know (and many of us studying the US press had wind at the time — read down to Malcolm’s comment) Coulson was out by an underestimate by about 2,668.6%.
We also now know that, included in multitude of victims, was a wide swathe of Sheridan’s family and associates, all targeted by Mulcaire. The extended as far as Sheridan’s mother and Joan McAlpine (who co-authored with Sheridan a book on the Poll Tax Revolt).
All of this, and far more, will be revisited if, and when Coulson is tried for any perjury. It is worth noting that, in the Scottish system, an arrest is not made until a pretty-convincing case has been prepared. Coulson has, most definitely, been arrested and charged.
What adds to the drama is that the Sheridan trial, and any wrong-doing by Coulson in that court, happened while Coulson was on the 10 Downing Street pay-roll. In other words, while Cameron was giving Coulson his “second chance”.
Meanwhile — and it must, surely, be coincidence — Cameron is also given a convenient let-out: he cannot answer any pointed questions at Leveson, for fear of muddying the waters of Strathclyde.
So, has Coulson been nailed this time?
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
The earliest versions of that date from around the time Edward III’s legal team was formulating his Treason Act.
It was already proverbial when John Gower used it in Confessio Amantis, around 1390.