Let Malcolm start with two confessions:
- Yesterday’s Sunday papers got short shrift, mainly because of that long liquid lunch at Ye Olde Cherry Tree, a decent meal well lubricated with St Austell’s Proper Job.
- He is distinctly ambivalent about the Bercows. Obviously, since John Bercow as Speaker gets up the noses of so many Tories, he cannot be entirely a bad thing. He seems to do the business; but doesn’t cut it along with the recent great Speakers of recent memory: say, Bernard Weatherill (recently the star of James Graham’s This House at the Cottesloe) and Betty Boothroyd (a great hoofer, never out-shone by anyone). As for wife Sally, well, she does seem a trifle OTT.
And it is of Sally Bercow of whom we now speak.
The story so far:
Back in the darkening days of last autumn a frisson ran through the British political establishment. Some well-rehearsed ‘revelations’ from decades gone by, about paedophile rings in high places, bubbled to the surface of the settlement pit. One particular name involved was McAlpine. Unfortunately two McAlpine cousins, “Jimmie” and Lord Alastair, were confused by the media, including the BBC (who later paid McAlpine £185,000 for the mistake).
In the course of which Sally Bercow tweeted:
Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*
The noble Lord McAlpine (believed to be down to his last ten million) then set about cleaning up. He issued writs for libel against all and sundry, collecting large sums of moolah in the process: the Guardian columnist George Monbiot coughed; and comedian Alan Davies is supposed to be down for £200,000. McAlpine then generously desisted from cleaning out the bank-accounts of lesser beings, making a special, public and explicit exception of Sally Bercow’s seven words and ornamental punctuation.
Sally, blessed her little convoluted heart, stood up to the bullying. Yesterday’s Sunday Times reminded us how things went from there:
The libel case is centred on whether Bercow’s tweet was defamatory. A key issue will be the level of innuendo implied by the use of asterisks in her comment. Such punctuation represents the mimicking of a physical action by the user.
Hold on! There is a precedent for this, which — at first, even second sight — seems to contradict the old maxim de minimis non curat lex. When English law wants to, it could — as with Roger Casement, hang a man on a comma.
Back to the Sunday Times:
At a High Court hearing on Tuesday, lawyers for McAlpine, 70, will ask for permission for the case to be split into two parts: one to determine the meaning of the tweet, and a second, if required, to award damages. The peer is seeking up to £50,000.
If the case goes against her, Bercow fears a two-part trial will drag proceedings on for months, with legal costs likely to overtake damages. This is why she is thought to want a full trial to be heard in one go.
Bercow has instructed solicitors at Carter-Ruck on a no-win, no-fee basis and is believed to have taken out insurance to cover costs of up to £100,000 should she lose.
She will be represented in court by William McCormick, QC, a defamation and privacy expert whose previous clients have included Sir Elton John.
McAlpine’s barrister is Sir Edward Garnier, a Tory MP and former solicitor-general.
Andrew Reid, of the RPMI firm of solicitors, who is also representing the peer, said, “It is very disappointing that Mrs Bercow still wants her day in court. But there is a huge public interest in this. The sooner the meaning of what she said is settled, the greater the benefit to the public at large.”
Focus, if you will, on that last quoted paragraph.
What does it mean?
- One plain insinuation is that plutocrats, who can afford the bill for the thrill of the chase, might mulct lesser creatures through just a threat of action. But the lesser being is not supposed to use the proper legal remedy of “a day in court”. Of course, with verbose senior barristers involved, the chances of this being settled in a “day” are precisely zilch. Scattering writs like confetti was patented by such low-lifes as Robert Maxwell, to the great profit of his tame lawyers, who have refined the operation ever since.
- Second, McAlpine’s lawyers would clearly prefer not to have all that embarrassing “huge public interest”. Not in front of the serviles …
- Partisan politics, and a bully’s need to humiliate, seems a major contributory factor.
- As for “benefit to the public at large”, any sensitive and sensible mind boggles. We have here another of the myriad attempts by those with power to throttle and constrain each and every twitch, tweet and twaddle of the social media. Underlings’ sympathy for La Bercow derives from the good British principle of nil carborundum.
- The moral superiority of Lord McAlpine fades when we recall he was on the take, albeit on behalf of Thatcher’s Tory Party, from the likes of Asil Nadir. His love-of-country amounts to being a non-dom. His family firm, the construction giant McAlpine, made vast sums from Tory policies, and also operated the notorious black-list: since McAlpine started his career with the firm as a clock-watcher and pay-clerk on the South Bank site, his distance from victimizations cannot have been too great.
One last thought …
This Sunday Times piece was illustrated by yet another from a photo-shoot of Lord McAlpine cruising (make of that word what you will) around Venice.
The chequered suit and a gaudy tie, guaranteed to bar any on-course bookie from frightening the horses, tells us all we need to know. This present image, arms propped on true-blue umbrella, Rialto Bridge and moon-faced cheesy half-grin to the fore, mushy-peas Grand Canal beyond, is the latest, and even least appealing of the sequence. Even Sally Bercow, in her more flirtatious and ill-advised moments didn’t sink that low.