20 JANUARY 1961, Page 6

Time Exposure

By BERNARD LEVIN In January, 1960—some six months later—he was telephoned by one Detective-Sergeant Peters of Scotland Yard, who subsequently came to see him with another police officer. They told him that the French police were considering a charge against him for outraging public decency in July, 1959. Mr. Vance wanted to know the details of the charge and also wanted an ex- planation of the delay in bringing it. He was invited to Scotland Yard, and on January 16 went there. He saw Detective-Sergeant Peters, who showed him a copy of a statement made to the French police by a Mme Becus (one of the jollier aspects of this business is that the French papers have been spelling her name with asterisks, as it appears that part of it is very rude in French) the previous July. This statement de- clared that at a place called Paray-Vieille-Post (of which Mr. Vance had never heard) she had seen a man dressed only in a towel get out of a car, face her, lift the towel, thus exposing him- self to her horrified gaze, she says, and immedi- ately get back into his car and leave. He did not speak, and she averted her eyes from him as soon as he lifted the towel; she walked on with them averted, in fact, until she heard a car-door slam, then turned round and took its number. The man she saw was very tanned, had brown hair and a thick, black moustache. Mr. Vance is very pallid, has quite fair hair and no moustache. Incidentally, Mme Becus did not report the incident until the following evening.

Not later than July 21 (which is the date on their official report of their inquiries), the French police found that a car with the number Mme Becus claimed to have recorded had been hired to Mr. Vance, whose name, address, nationality and passport number they promptly obtained from the form he had filled in when taking possession of the car.

Six months then passed, though nobody has yet been able (or willing) to explain why. And at the end of that time Mr. Vance had his first intimation that all was not well between him and France. His visit to Scotland Yard passed without any anxiety. Sergeant Peters explained the business (though he was unable to explain the delay of the French police in contacting a man whose name and address they had had for six months), and said that Mr. Vance could make a statement or not, as he wished, and could similarly send a photograph of himself or not (Sergeant Peters had Mr. Vance's passport photograph—the second one that everybody provides when obtaining a passport). He warned Mr. Vance, however, that French procedure when showing photographs to an accuser or complainant for the purpose of identification was different from the British method, and that it was even possible that they might show his photograph alone. He said—and his words were to seem quite interesting later on—that whatever Mr. Vance's decision, the British police would protect him.

Mr. Vance made a statement then and there, seeing no reason why he should not, since the business had nothing to do with him; he was as helpful as he could be about his movements six months earlier. On Sergeant Peters's excellent advice, he did not send a photograph. And that was that.

Only it was not. For in August, 1960—seven months after Mr. Vance's visit to Scotland Yard and thirteen months after the alleged incident, Sergeant Peters wrote to Mr. Vance and asked him to telephone Scotland Yard. This Mr. Vance did, to discover that the French police were pro- ceeding with a charge against him. On inquiring how this could be, he was told that Mme Becus had claimed to recognise Mr. Vance from his photograph. What photograph? His passport photograph. How had the French police got his passport photograph, which Sergeant Peters had warned him against sending, adding that Scot- land Yard would protect him? Ah, well, it ap- peared that there were methods.

There then followed a protracted and in- creasingly farcical series of communications be- tween Vance and France. No reply was made to his solicitor when the latter wrote asking for details to the court which was, he learnt from the ever-helpful Detective-Sergeant Peters, to hear the case `shortly.' And after he had found a French lawyer to act for him a series of mag- nificently inaccurate documents began to flow from the French authorities, in which Mr. Vance was referred to by a series of wrong names, at least one of which was his dead father's. He was also, less amusingly, informed that if he did not attend the court personally no defence could be entered on his behalf. With what one must feel is commendable courage, Mr. Vance is going to attend the hearing in person.

Before drawing the threads together, I should state that Mr. Vance is a man of respectable character and antecedents; he has, in addition to his work (necessarily conducted more or less in public), been frequently involved in com- mittee and other semi-official contacts with the authorities connected with such things as union relations, censorship, the employment of aliens and so on. There was, and is, no corroboration whatever of the statement not made until the evening following the alleged offence; Mr. Vance has also subsequently learned unofficially that Mme Becus is anxious to drop the whole silly business.

There are two comments to be made. The first is an obvious one about the quality of the French police, which would seem to be quite accurately u symbolised by the celebrated image of that officer who went galumphing round and round a field in the South of France 'reconstructing the crime' and playing eeny-meeny-miny-mo with a pair of handcuffs and the entire Dominici family. To take six months to trace a man whose full name and address you have must, after all, take some doing.

But this is by the way, as indeed is the fact that a 'case' as weak as this one would never have got within a mile of a magistrate's court in this country. It was unfortunate for Mr. Vance that he found himself in this situation : he calculates that he will be roughly £800 out of pocket before it is over, even if he isn't found guilty. (There was a charming moment when he wrote—sancta si►n- plieitas!—to Mr. Macmillan, who hastened a month later to reply that the British Government could not undertake to pay for Mr. Vance's de- fence, which he had not asked them to.) But this could have happened to anyone, and it is not necessary to postulate mala fides on the part of anyone in France, including Mme Becus.

On this side of the Channel, however, it seems that somebody has rather more explaining to do than has so far been done. Mr. Fenner Brockway raised the general principle in this case in the House of Commons just before the Christmas recess, without mentioning its particular appli- cation. Mr. Heath promised to look into the matter in general; it now appears that he might well look into the matter in particular.

For, apart from the fact that a passport is supposed in theory to be for the purpose of affording the holder the protection of the British res pabliea, and the fact that passport photo- graphs should surely not be sent abroad in the case of somebody not actually wanted for an alleged crime, without at least informing the un- fortunate subject that it is being done, and the fact that even with such safeguards it should never be done except in the case of an ex- traditable offence (which the one alleged against Mr. Vance was not), there is a formidable hurdle to be cleared. How, and why, after Sergeant Peters had warned Mr. Vance against sending his photograph, making it quite clear that the decision was his alone, and assuring him of the protection of the British police, was Mr. Vance's photograph actually sent to France?. It does not seem likely that Sergeant Peters was deliberately stringing Mr. Vance along; for in any case the decision to send the photograph wopld presum- ably be taken at a level higher than his. Nevertheless, it was taken; Mr. Vance was not told; he was left to believe that no photograph had been sent; he was under the impression that the British police would afford him such assis- tance and protection as might be necessary. He has still not been able to discover in what cir- cumstances the photograph was shown to Mme Becus, or how many other photographs, of what type and of what people, were shown with it. He concludes that he has been badly let down by the British authorities in a thoroughly under- hand and probably unconstitutional way. It is not easy to disagree with him, either.

I forgot to say that Mmc Becus said in an interview that the man she saw was 'every inch a gentleman.'