MR. BEVAN AND THE SPECTATOR*
By IAIN ADAMSON
rr HE illness of a fellow barrister in Novem-
ber, 1957, was to introduce Beyfus to Aneurin Bevan, Foreign Secretary in the Labour Party's Shadow Cabinet. Neither was impressed With the other, though Beyfus won Bevan's libel action against the intellectual weekly, the Spectator.
Advocacy is not necessarily oratory and Beyfus knew that though any lawsuit involving Bevan was almost automatically a cause ce'lare, as little as possible must be made of his fiery personality. It must be a dull and stodgy action by a gentleman accused of being drunk at a political gathering, and thus wronged in his Private life, not an examination of his political Philosophy. Judges do not like their courts con- sidered a second hustings-and few are noted for their socialistic opinions. Yet it was for political reasons as well as his forensic skill that Bevan's advisers recommended Beyfus as his counsel When their original leader fell ill. Beyfus was the most prominent high Tory at the Bar, a founder member of the Inns of Court Conservative Asso- ciation.
Seven years previously Beyfus had published his opinion of Bevan in Truth, a now defunct extreme right-wing weekly. It was printed under the pseudonym of 'A. Broadside' and declared that we must owe Bevan 'to some malignant fate, whose politician's life is built on hate.' BeYfus never changed that opinion. Bevan, in his turn, was to express astonish- ment at Beyfus' reputation because his skill at Preventing the lawsuit becoming a dog-fight was difficult to appreciate except in careful retro- sPeet. The newspapers, hoping for flashes of quicksilver Welsh wit from Bevan, resounding courtroom oratory from Beyfus and omnipotent comments from Lord Goddard, Lord Chief Justice, despatched their special writers to the trial. They found the expected verbal pyrotech- nics smothered under a pall of threadbare clichés. One wrote, The clichés flew soggily . . . "Dog didn't eat dog". The fine invective summit was reached with the picture drawn of the ,,pectcaor eating humble pie while sitting in the dust,' Underneath he clichés, however, was more e_xciternent than the newspapers had ever hoped. Bevan was committing perjury. He had been drunk. He was also eager to sue. 'I've been libelled too often. I can get them on this,' he told a companion. And Ian Gilmour, owner and at that time editor of the Spectator, believed that Lord Goddard could have no love for his paper. Its editorial comment on a debate on hanging in had House uf Lords, in which Lord Goddard had taken a prominent part, had been pungent. The Spectator had not forgotten that before the 1(...ylral Commission on Capital Punishment Lord Goddard had given it as his opinion that it was ro*A chapter from Mr. Adamson's The Old x A Life of Gilbert Beyfus QC, to be pub- lished by Muller on Monday at 30s. right and proper to hang an insane murderer. Gilmour, a barrister before he bought control of the Spectator and changed it from a rather safe Tory journal into a fairly independent review, no doubt felt that he had no reason to alter his belief about Lord Goddard's feelings for his paper when the trial was over.
Beyfus, who himself was to be accused of sharp practice in disclosing secret negotiations to publish an apology, did not know that Bevan was lying. He did believe, however, that luck was with him when he heard that Lord God- dard was to hear the action. 'The best court we could get,' he declared. He was to make special mention of the change in the editorial direction of the Spectator when he made his final speech.
The article, entitled Death in Venice,' had been published eight months previously, just after the congress of the Italian Socialist Party. It was what journalists call 'an atmosphere piece' with black gondolas gliding in and out to symbolise the death of the hopes that Italy's two socialist parties would unite. The author, Jenny Nicholson. formerly one of C. B. Cochran's Young Ladies and daughter of poet Robert Graves, dealt in the second paragraph with the three British politicians who were present.
All were there for different reasons. Bevan had gone as the Labour Party's delegate, Richard Crossman, a member of the party's executive, as a journalist and Morgan Phillips, the party's secretary, as chairman of the 'Socialist International. They were not in Venice for exactly the same period nor were they always together during the time they were, but Miss Nicholson called them the British delega- tion. At no time in Venice was Mr. Crossman or Mr. Phillips under the influence of alcohol and the article libelled them most seriously for it declared: 'And there was the occasional appearance of Messrs. Bevan, Morgan Phillips and Richard Crossman; who puzzled the Italians by their capacity to fill themselves like tanks with whisky 'My, it's good to see a human face again!' and coffee, while they (because of their livers and also because they are abstemious by nature) were keeping going on mineral water and an occasional coffee. Although the Italians were never sure if the British delegation was sober, they always attributed to them an immense political acumen.'
Bevan, silver-haired, sober-faced, the elder statesman, was Beyfus' first witness. His ques- tions and Bevan's answers were a model in simplicity.
'It has been said of you that you filled yourself like a tank with whisky and coffee?'
'There is no truth in that at all.'
'Were you ever in a state in which there could have been any doubt as to your sobriety?'
'No,' answered, Bevan firmly. He went on, 'It made me exceedingly angry, very indignant indeed that such an allegation should be made. It was completely groundless.'
His answers were as precise when he was cross-examined by Mr. W. Fearnley-Whitting- stall, counsel for the Spectator.
'Your usefulness in your position is as secure now as ever it was?'
'I am very glad to hear you say so,' replied Bevan. 'I hope it is so.'
Did you refuse to drink alcoholic refresh- ment during the congress?'
'A little wine certainly.'
'I drank one glass of whisky.' declared Bevan. `I would like to point out that whisky is not the alcoholic refreshment generally taken at Italian conferences.'
Lord Goddard interjected, 'Whisky is rather expensive.'
Bevan was to add that had the Spectator apologised and said that the allegations in the article were completely untrue then that would have settled the matter. He was lying, both in regard to how much he had drunk and the apology. His capacity to sink drink after drink had indeed astonished the Italians.
Immediately after the article appeared the three politicians consulted their solicitors who wrote to the Spectator. No lawyer would have hesitated if asked whether the words could bear a defamatory meaning. Why, then, did the Spectator not separate the claims, apologise to Crossman and Phillips and plead justification for the alleged libel against Bevan?
Gilmour says, 'I never thought Bevan would commit perjury for money.' But he adds, 'You have to be brave indeed to plead justification these days if you're a newspaper.'
It was a view that Beyfus endorsed. Had the Spectator pleaded justification and lost, then without doubt the damages would have been enormous, perhaps so enormous that the paper's future might have been endangered.
The Spectator was in a dilemma. On the one hand it wanted to stand by its correspondent Jenny Nicholson, and as Ian Gilmour was to state in court, 'If I had said the whole thing was quite untrue I would have been jeopardising the journalistic position of a lady quite apart from being sued for libel by her.' On the other hand the Spectator realised that to plead justi- fication might be suicidal since Bevan would be free to call witnesses of his own choice to sug- gest a contrary version of how he spent his time in Venice.
Its solicitors sought a way out. Along with a letter of regret and the assurance that the Spectator was willing and eager to publish a mutually acceptable apology they sent a draft of a proposed apology. It read: 'It appears that the reference to the British observers has been mis- understood to reflect upon their sobriety whilst in Venice. This was at no time our intention or that of the writer. The passage was merely in- tended to indicate the difference in the national approach and show that Englishmen would not be so over earnest as to refuse alcoholic refresh- ment during the intervals as opposed to the mineral water attitude of the Italian delegates. Whilst the article was published in good faith we would like to express our regret for any in- convenience to which the paragraph might have unwittingly given rise.'
That apology was rejected. The Spectator thought out a new solution—draft your own apology, it suggested. It seems a reasonable idea but it is beset by legal pitfalls. On legal advice the politicians refused. But Crossman was the son of a judge and lawyers are traditionally loath to go to law on their own behalf. He put forward a draft apology, after meeting Gilmour at a dinner party.
There was no dubiety about any of its phrases. Though eager to settle he wanted an apology that grovelled. The Spectator did not wish to grovel to Bevan though long ago it had recog- nised that the paragraph contained allegations which should never have been printed in a serious weekend review.
Crossman's version read : 'These allegations were as absurd as they were offensive and we have since confirmed that there was no truth in them whatsoever. We and the author are both glad to withdraw them unreservedly, to offer our sincere apologies and to express our sincere regret that they were ever published in the columns of the Spectator.'
The Spectator revised it and sent it back. Its version was: 'These remarks if taken seriously would be absurd and offensive and we are assured and accept that there was no truth in them whatsoever. Whilst we had no intention of causing offence we and the author now realise that these remarks should not have appeared and we are both glad to withdraw them unreservedly, to offer our sincere apologies and to express our sincere regret that they were ever published in the columns of the Spectator.'
The revised version was rejected. Every phrase had been watered down and made light of, Crossman was to say. Negotiations came to a standstill. Bevan especially was intransigent. At the instance of their lawyers the Spectator now wrote to the solicitors of the three politicians that in fairness to them, their readers and them- selves it must no,v publish an apology. It added, 'Our clients are . . ready and willing to assist in the making of a statement in open court, if your clients really feel such additional publicity to be in their best interests.' An apology duly appeared in the Spectator.
It read: "Death in Venice." Following pub- lication on March 1 last of an article under this title concerning the 23rd National Congress of the Italian Socialist Party, we received a com- plaint from solicitors writing on behalf of the Rt. Hon. Aneurin Bevan, MP, Mr. Morgan Phillips and Mr. Richard Crossman, MP, con- cerning one passage in that article which had, regrettably, been read to reflect upon them.
'On receipt of their solicitors' letter our own solicitors immediately wrote submitting a form of apology which it was our desire to publish in our next issue. Unfortunately, neither the draft which we first submitted nor an alterna- tive draft sent later was acceptable to them and although we invited amendment or alterna- tive wording none was forthcoming. In con- sequence, though we desired to publish an agreed apology this did not prove possible.
'Unhappily, proceedings are at present pending against the Spectator in respect of the article. We have felt, however, that it would not be fair to Mr. Bevan, Mr. Phillips and Mr. Crossman, to our readers or to ourselves to leave the passage in question uncorrected and unwithdrawn until matters are resolved, since this could involve some considerable lapse of time. We have, there- fore, taken it upon ourselves now to publish this statement and apology.
'The passage to which we have referred, and which we much regret was published in our columns, has unfortunately been taken to mean that these leading members of the Socialist Party consumed such an amount of alcoholic refreshment at the National Congress of the Italian Socialist Party as to make the Italians seriously suspect their sobriety.
'It is hardly necessary for us to say that the article was published by us in good faith, having been received from a reputable source, and we wish to take this opportunity of making it clear that . any such imputation was never intended and, of course, would be quite untrue. In so far as the article was read in this way or in any ,adverse sense the passages are unreservedly withdrawn.
'We wish also to take this opportunity of ten- dering to Mr. Aneurin Bevan, Mr. Morgan Phillips and Mr. Crossman our sincere apologies and of expressing our regret for any incon- venience or annoyance they may have suffered.'
Some two months later, when the trial was imminent, the Spectator paid 500 guineas into court for each politician. Crossman and Morgan Phillips were eager to accept the offer of a full apology in court and that amount of damages. Bevan was not; confident that he would win, and receive damages in excess of 500 guineas, he wanted_ the action to go to trial. If the jury awarded less than 500 guineas the politicians would have to pay the costs of the trial, but a socialist millionaire stiffened Bevan's resolution with the assurance that if that proved to be the case he would pay the costs of the action.
Before the hearing began the Spectator understood that the three politicians would settle for an apology and £1,000 damages each. No offer was made and Beyf us started his opening speech to the jury. Less than two hours later the Spectator, already convinced, from the questions of Beyfus and Lord Goddard, that the jury would inflict heavy damages, said it would pay £1,000 to each politician. Beyfus laughed when he heard of the offer and advised the politicians to refuse. They took his advice, having also sensed the way the case was going.
Crossman was to remember Beyfus' tremen- dous professional skill in making it routine. There was a mustiness about his metaphors but he was impregnable.' The Spectator, founded in 1828, was a paper of considerable prestige, said Beyfus. It boasted that it had a circulation of some 40,000 and that on an average five people read each copy. Twenty-five thousand of its readers were abroad. It was therefore absolutely damning for the paper to declare that these three public men were swilling whisky to such an extent that they were clearly the worse for drink and that the Italians could not make out whether they were sober or not. Yet the first proposed apologY, he declared, was obviously a mock apology. Its solicitors' letter was 'sly and slippery.' With immense sarcasm Beyfus fastened on the sentence that any inconvenience the politicians had suffered was regretted. Inconvenience was a curious word, he commented, when their characters, credit and reputation had been brought into public scandal, odium and con- tempt. He submitted that the Spectator, knoW- ing how damaging the article would be, had published it quite recklessly, relying on the reluctance of public men to come to court. It had expected it would be able to fob them off with some ridiculous apology, pretending that they had misconstrued the words. He would ask for damages that would not only compensate the plaintiffs but make an example of the news" paper. Bevan and his two colleagues then gave evi- dence and each was questioned about what happened to him personally during his time in Venice. Fearnley-Whittingstall then entered upon the impossible task of trying to explain that the words did not ,mean what they said. He sulk gested that anyone reading the article would take it that among all the political scheming going on among the Italians the British were a bit aloof, drank whisky and had a bit of a busman's holiday—at the same time preserving the utmost political sagacity. Ian Gilmour, the first defence witness, re- peated his assurance that he greatly regrette that the allegations had been published. Lord Goddard took a hand in the questioning. d 'Because you recognise they are offensive?' he demanded.
'They were taken as such,' Gilmour replied With a lawyer's caution.
'You know what the English language is,' said Lord Goddard. 'Do you say these words are not offensive—to say that a man is filling him- self up with whisky like a tank.'
Gilmour answered that he took it that Jenny Nicholson was saying that the politicians had drunk whisky in Venice, which was unusual, and that the Italians were saying that the British might not be sober in view of that. He took it that the Italians drank their own type of drinks.
Beyfus began his cross-exam ina tic n and Gilmour told him that he did not take the article as casting any slur on the politicians.
Beyfus' question was barbed. 'Where were You educated, Mr. Gilmour?' he asked sarcasti- cally.
'Eton--and the tall and lean young editor replied.
'Then what do you think it means?' inter- jected Lord Goddard.
'That the plaintiffs enjoyed themselves in the normal way in Venice—drinking, not to excess, but a good deal,' Gilmour replied.
Said Beyfus, 'What metaphors would you
employ- to describe drinking to excess? I sup-
Pose "drinking like a reservoir"?' The court laughed. It was one of the very few lighter moments during the trial. 'For some people one glass of whisky would be too much. The question of quantity does not seem to me to be important,' Gilmour replied.
When Gilmour was questioned about the use of the word 'inconvenience' in the first draft of the apology Lord Goddard commented, 'This libel is not "inconvenient." It is intensely an- n°Ying.' In that same draft were the words published in good faith.' What did he mean by that? Lord Goddard demanded.
Gilmour replied that he believed that the article was true when he published it—that the Fnlitieians had drunk but were not drunk. He had rung up Miss Nicholson and she said that What she had written was true. The form of apology thus became a lawyer's matter. 11 suppose you might have considered what a gentleman should do in these circumstances, quite apart from lawyers?' said Lord Goddard.
Gilmour explained that he was in a difficulty. He had offended the three politicians but if he Published a statement that everything was untrue
then he could be sued for libel by Miss Nicholson.
'So you were trying to walk the tightrope be- tWeen them?' said Beyfus. Gilmour agNed. 'I wanted to satisfy all Parties,
'And you have not satisfied anybody,' Lord Goddard commented. The next day Beyfus cross-examined Gilmour about the sentence in the published apology: 'Although we invited amendment or alternative Wording none was forthcoming.' These words Were written in frigid and complete bad faith
,..,HeYfus had told the jury in his opening speech. they only added fuel to the fire for under the
guise of an _ further apology the Spectator was making Public attack on the three men, accus- ing them of unreasonable conduct in not accept-
ing the mock apologies which had been offered. In view of the draft submitted by Crossman Beyfus now suggested to Gilmour that that statement was a lie.
`Mr. Beyfus, it was not a lie: answered Gil- rrour indignantly, 'and with your considerable experience of these cases you ought to know that Mr. Crossman's draft was "without prejudice," and the whole basis of "without prejudice" nego- tiations is that they should never be published. You have chosen to break those rules and I think it is very wrong of you to accuse me of lying because we kept to them.'
Beyfus was equally indignant. 'Are you saying that it is right and proper to say something that is untrue because owing to sonic "without pre- judice- rule the other side cannot prove that it is untrue?'
"All I say is that one never refers to such negotiations. Otherwise one would not have them,' Gilmour replied.
Gilmour regarded Beyfus' decision to reveal these negotiations as very sharp practice but Beyfus believed that by that sentence the Spectator and its legal advisers had broken the rules regarding secrecy. If it had not appeared then it might well be that the negotiations con- cerning the various suggested apologies would never have been revealed to the jury. The way that Crossman's (haft apology was watered down had given the jury—unaware of the reasons for the Spectator's apparently dilatory manner—a poor impression of the seriousness with which the Spectator regarded the libel.
In the same issue of the Spectator as Miss Nicholson's article Randolph Churchill had praised the £20,000 damages that Beyfus had won for Ortiz-Patino. 'In the past, rich porno- graphers and intruders into people's private lives, and those who publish statements reckless of the truth, have also only been mulcted in petty sums for the damages they have caused,' Churchill had written. 'It now looks as if British juries are on the warpath against those wealthy malefactors and will impose upon them punitive and even prohibitive damages which will affect their balance sheets. And high time too.'
`Do you agree with that?' Beyfus asked Gilmour.
Gilmour did. 'Thank you,' said Beyfus. In his final speech he commended that article to the jury when they considered the size of the damages they should award. The Lord Chief Justice did not commend it. In a letter to Gilmour after the trial, Fearnley- Whittingstall was to write that in his opinion Lord Goddard's frequent questions and com- ments from the Bench were 'quite shocking.' Goddard, who had no doubt noted that his inter- jections had been fully reported in the press, now told the jury that they should give such moderate damages as they thought would indi- cate that they believed an injury had been done to the politicians. am sure none of the plaintiffs would want extravagant compensa- tion,' he declared.
What are nominal damages? If the jury awarded less than the 500 guineas paid into court for each politician then they would have to pay the costs of the two-day hearing. They were estimated at £4,000 There was an anxious twenty-eight minutes as the jury deliberated, but they shared Beyfus' views on nominal damages. Despite his directions they 'came in heavily' for the politicians said Lord Goddard later in the House of Lords. Each was awarded £2,500.
Outside the court, reporters gathered round two people. Miss Jenny Nicholson dabbed her eyes and cried. Aneurin Bevan fiercely twirled his bushy eyebrows and faced the journalists. His character was vindicated, he told them. What are you going to do with the money? asked one.
'That is an impertinent question,' Bevan re- plied and stalked away.
Gilbert Beyfus went home to a dinner of smoked salmon, dates and a celebration bottle of champagne.