Randolph's Finest Hour
By EVELYN WAUGH No one who knows Mr. Randolph Churchill and wishes to express distaste for him should ever be at a loss for words which would be both opprobrious and apt. When, in May, 1955, the People described him as 'chief among' those who 'have not seen fit to fight openly for seats but prefer to be paid hacks, paid to write biased accounts of the campaign' (the General Election), they attacked a man who had made himself obnoxious to them, in one of the rather few places in which he was entirely impregnable. It was a preposterous comment which in the slow processes of the law at last brought them into the courts in October, 1956. Any man, and par- ticularly a poor man, who has the courage to risk his money and expose himself to cross- examination in order to defend his reputation against the misrepresentations of the rich and powerful press is sure of a sympathetic hearing. Mr. Churchill was awarded £5,000 and it was a very popular win indeed. Now he has published a full account of the affair.* It all, in Mr. Churchill's chronology, dates back to September, 1953, when he was asked to pro- pose the health of the editor of the Daily Mirror at a public luncheon. Mr. Churchill, rather than refuse, took the opportunity to arraign the guest of honour and a number of absent newspaper proprietors on the charge of pornography. I wish I _had been there. It sounded a first-class joke. But apparently it was the first skirmish in a holy war which Mr. Churchill felt himself in- spired to lead and he was much annoyed to find that The Times newspaper did not take him seriously. Off he went to Manchester next month and amplified his charges before the Publicity Association. Still no report in The Times. He issued his two speeches as a pamphlet. W. H. Smith and Sons refused to sell it. Back he went to Fleet Street in November and preached to the Forum. There was, he believed, a conspiracy to silence him. That is always the complaint of the crank, but in this matter Mr. Churchill had an important and popular cause. I think he makes a plausible case.
Mr. Ainsworth, the editor of the People, was one of the men whom Mr. Churchill named as a leading' pornographer. Nineteen months later Mr. Ainsworth libelled him in the singularly infelicitous terms quoted above. Fifteen months later he, or someone else, paid £5,000 for his clumsiness.
Throughout the two days' trial the rival bar- risters exchanged the customary polite references to one another's brilliant advocacy, but to the lay reader it seems that the deciding factors were Mr. Ainsworth's diffidence in appearing per- sonally—a fastidiousness in sharp contrast to his literary activities—aria Mr. Churchill's exuberant and dominating eloquence. Indeed, he set an example of style and diction to both counsel. Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall, in opening, spoke of 'nailing a lie to the mast' and began his final speech with the cryptic exclamation, 'Yo ho ho * WHAT I SAID ABOUT THE PRESS. By Randolph Churchill. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 7s. 6d.) Distributed by County Bumpkins Ltd., East Bergholt, Suffolk, and a bottle of rum tactics.' Mr. Gilbert Paull, in his final speech for the defence, said: 'It was not the attacks on Mr. Ainsworth that got his (Mr. Ainsworth's) goat,' while Mr. Churchill, in the sustained oration which, with occasional prompting from the cross-examining counsel, comprised his performance in the box, never strayed from the thin second growth of the Augustan grove save to penetrate at moments into the solid wood which his father frequents. There is even at times a touch of the fire and pre- cision of Hilaire Belloc. Sometimes poor Mr. Paull edged in a word and got soundly snubbed. 'Q.: Is it criminal to call you a hack? A.: I am not suggesting it is criminal—this is a civil action, Mr. Paull.' Even the judge received scant atten- tion at times. 'Q.: I am suggesting to you that the language shows a complete lack of — A,: You would rather I wrote what people like—Mr. Justice Jones : Let counsel finish the question. The Witness: You were complaining about the language I used, etc.' [My italics.] Unable to call any witness for the defence, Mr. Paull resorted to the futile expedient of searching Mr. Churchill's other writings in order to show him as equally intemperate aS Mr. Ains- worth. Mr. Churchill firmly kept him to the issue that he complained, not of the violence of Mr. Ainsworth's language, but of the falsehood of the allegations. Poor Mr. Paull made a sad show of pretending to take with great seriousness ex- pressions that were patently ironical or facetious. In the Punch-and-Judy dialogue Mr. Churchill scored every time. It was his own personal triumph. But, reading it, one is left at the end with a certain disgust.
Mr. Churchill got his damages. Counsel and solicitors got their fees. The jury dispersed, no doubt, with satisfaction, at seeing justice done and a rich, unlovely commercial undertaking lose some of its huge profits. But who, one wonders, really pays? Mr. Churchill's is one among a crop of recent libel actions, some trivial, some, like the Duke of Norfolk's, very grave, in which heavy damages have been awarded. But do the libellers ever suffer at all? Libel can be a graver delinquency than pornography. Nearly twenty years ago a bright, young magazine, Night and Day, was ruined and extinguished by a libel action brought by a rich corporation.
Does anyone in the modern world of the great newspapers experience the slightest setback in his profession, does any journalist, editor or owner smoke a single cigarette the fewer as the penalty for his nasty and illegal practices? The' time, I think, is ripe for the restoration of the pillory.