Aitken and the ABC case

[L-R] Tony Bunyan, Duncan Campbell and Sarah Kavanagh speaking at the Arnolfini in Bristol, an event organised to mark the 40th anniversary of the ABC Campaign

The event in Bristol a couple of weeks ago to mark the 40th anniversary of the Aubrey-Berry-Campbell official secrets case was a good chance to catch up with many people I hadn’t seen for a good number of years. I was also quite surprised by the large number of bits of ephemera which I designed for the campaign. Stickers, posters, badges, the ‘souvenir programme’ which we produced for the 1978 Old Bailey trial and a few more I had totally forgotten about. The product of many nights Letrasetting headlines and pasting up artwork, and there they all were, projected onto the backdrop behind the speakers in a never-ending slideshow.

One was for this Conway Hall meeting, held in April 1977, an event I remember well.

Some people might be surprised to see Jonathan Aitken’s name as a speaker at this meeting, given that he is most famous now for being convicted of perjury following the collapse of the libel case he brought against the Guardian in 1995. However, he had himself been on trial in 1971 for breaching the Official Secrets Act, along with the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, the newspaper itself and a retired army colonel who had been an observer in the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s. All the defendants were eventually acquitted on all charges. (The best summary of the case that I could find online is actually from the New York Times.) The judge told the court that the Telegraph’s report did not contain ‘a word affecting our national security.’ and that the result should make the Government consider whether the broad terms of the act had ‘reached retirement age and should be pensioned off.’ The case against Aitken was brought by a Labour government and Attorney-General, and it was the same combination who brought the 1977 prosecution against Aubrey, Berry and Campbell. That might have been the party political reason for Aitken speaking in support of a campaign which had previously only been backed by left-wing Labour MPs (such as Neil Kinnock, Jo Richardson and Robert Kilroy-Silk(!)).

After the case, Aitken wrote a book, Officially Secret, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in 1971. I have a copy of this, which I see from the stamps inside that I bought from a LB Hackney sale of withdrawn library stock in 1986 for 25p. The cover was designed by Craig Dodd, who also worked on covers for other publishers in this period. (See these posts on Existential Ennui: The Dame, The Right Stuff and The Shooting Party.)

There is another link between the Aitken and ABC cases. One of the defence counsel in both was Lord Hutchinson QC, who died yesterday at the grand age of 102. In his obituary in today’s Guardian, Geoffrey Robertson QC (who was a junior counsel in the ABC case) recalls how Hutchinson found out about the jury-vetting in the latter case, in a story which he also told at the Bristol event:

On the opening day of the ‘ABC’ trial in 1978, Jeremy discovered by chatting to an incautious Old Bailey clerk that the prosecution had made a clandestine application to a subservient judge to ‘vet’ the jury panel. This practice had been secretly used in ‘political’ cases and Jeremy’s advocacy blew it up into a national scandal. A pupil barrister (now Mr Justice Nicol) was dispatched post-haste to the LSE library to borrow a copy of Bentham’s Elements of the Art of Jury-Packing, which Jeremy used as the basis for a blistering attack on the weak Labour law officers who had approved this obnoxious form of secret policing.

By the time the ABC case came up for trial, I was working for the National Council for Civil Liberties as its publications officer. The very first item I produced in this new job was a pamphlet called Justice Deserted, written by one of NCCL’s legal officers, Harriet Harman, and LSE professor John Griffith. The foreword was by EP Thompson, no less, and I recall having to ring the great man himself to give him instructions as to where to post his text. Heady days indeed.

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“Unctuous and insincere toadying”

Not my words, but those of Bill Bryson who, before he became the world-famous travel writer, was the much-revered (in sub-editing circles, at least) author of the Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words. I have the original 1984 edition, others are available.

As has been widely reported this week, the UK’s International Development Secretary has resigned/been sacked from her position after certain difficulties arose with her failure to tell her colleagues what she did on her holiday in Israel. She spent an awkward hour or so in No 10 before issuing the letter seen above.

What has not been widely reported this week is the language howler in her resignation letter. Ms Patel offered the Prime Minister her ‘fulsome apology’, presumably under the impression that this is a beefed-up version of a ‘full apology’. However, as the estimable Mr Bryson says, the sense that is usually accorded the word ‘fulsome’ – of being copious or lavish or unstinting is almost the opposite of the word’s actual meaning. ‘Fulsome,’ he writes:

is related to foul and means odious and overfull, offensively insincere. ‘Fulsome praise’, properly used, isn’t a lavish tribute; it is unctuous and insincere toadying.

There was a time when civil servants (who presumably drafted Ms Patel’s letter) were given Ernest Gower’s Plain Words to help them to learn how better to express themselves. Someone slipped up here.

Talking to plants

This photo was in the Guardian on Friday. It is supposed to show a lonely Theresa May in Brussels, in a room on her own waiting for an EU delegation to arrive. But as an informative blogpost by Jon Worth points out, May wasn’t alone in the room at all. She had arrived with British delegation colleagues including Tim Barrow and Gavin Barwell, but had then made the mistake of taking a seat before the EU delegates arrived. Here’s the sequence of pictures, all taken by freelance Geert Vanden Wijngaert, working for AP:

Wijngaert confirmed that May wasn’t alone in the room, telling Worth in an email: ‘She just was the first to go and sit at the meeting table when others were still standing. I framed the image so you only could see her. That’s what press photographers do all the time to illustrate news stories.’ Great work from the photographer, given that he probably only had a few seconds to see and get the shot.

Blown over by Ophelia

This is the scene in the Phoenix Park in Dublin less than 24 hours after ex-Hurricane Ophelia had the whole of the island of Ireland on red alert. Along Chesterfield Avenue, the main road through the park, there are many branches and a few whole trees down. Here, in the Oldtown wood area, a small beech tree has fallen to the ground. It doesn’t look to me as though it will pose any danger to anyone where it lies, so it will be interesting to see what the authorities do when they come round to assess it. Nearby, a large Scots pine has lain unmoved for nearly two years, since it fell victim to Storm Frank in December 2015.

People regularly climb on this massive trunk and I’ve even seen dogs running along it. But it’s obviously been left to go through the same process of natural decay as it would do in a normal forest. A good way of increasing the biodiversity in the park.

Meanwhile the park’s resident herd of fallow deer are getting on with what matters to them most at this time of year, which is the rut. A hundred yards from the fallen tree a small group of hinds were hanging out with a single stag. 

The stags started moving over to this side of the park a few weeks ago. Once the stags have sorted out a harem for themselves and mated with the hinds as they come into season, they will up sticks and move back to the other side of the park. By Christmas the all-male bachelor herd will be reformed. At the moment, it’s a bit like a teenage disco as the lads strut about bellowing and locking horns with each other in an attempt to impress the ladeez. The ones who don’t get a date sit around in the long grass looking forlorn.

Examiner goes for Las Vegas body pictures

Of all the front page pictures in today’s British and Irish newspapers, that used by the Irish Examiner (seen above) is surely the most graphic. No qualms on the picture desk in Cork about using a photograph of two obviously dead bodies. Their faces may not be visible but surely there must be families somewhere who would recognise these two young women by their clothes and shoes? The fact that they are facing each other suggests that they were hanging onto each other as they were killed.

For several years in the early 2000s I taught newspaper and magazine design to journalism students at Dublin Institute of Technology. One of the handouts I prepared for them (see below) was on choosing and using photographs, and I used two newspaper front pages from the same day in March 2003 to show the kind of decisions which picture editors have to take. Both the Irish Times and the Guardian had used shots of a dead child killed in the Gulf War taken by the same Reuters photographer. However in one – that used by the Guardian – the other people in the picture were adding to the composition by pointing to the body of a child.

I remember having some discussion with the students about whether or not unpixellated or uncropped photographs of bodies should be used. I’m not sure whether we came to any definite conclusion, but it is noticeable that since that time it is rare for the press to use such explicit images to be seen. Someone at the Examiner has obviously decided that today is the day for one. A brave choice indeed.

Just out of interest, here is today’s roundup of UK front pages, as shown in the BBC’s blog.

The ABC case: forty years on

L-R: Duncan Campbell, Crispin Aubrey and John Berry, pictured after their arrest in 1977. Pic: Crispin Aubrey Legacy Fund

It’s hard to believe that it’s more than 40 years since two journalists, Crispin Aubrey and Duncan Campbell, were arrested outside the North London flat of ex-soldier John Berry. All three were then charged with various offences under the Official Secrets Act.

I became a fairly active member of their defence committee, which was also supported by the National Union of Journalists and civil liberties groups. A first trial at the Old Bailey in September 1978 collapsed after one of the members of the jury was identified as a former officer in the Special Air Service. A second trial opened on 3 October 1978. The prosecution admitted that much of the information was in the public domain, and charges under section 1 of the Official Secrets Act were dropped on 24 October. All three were finally found guilty on 17 November 1978 of the Section 2 offences, but received non-custodial sentences.

Crispin Aubrey died suddenly of a heart attack in 2012. His family set up a fund in his memory to continue his work and carry on the campaigns with which he was involved. The fund is organising a public discussion in Bristol on Friday 3 November to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the case, and all are invited. Among the speakers will be John Berry and Duncan Campbell. The invitation explains:

Every post-war generation has had its own whistleblower who has tried to expose the extent to which governments monitor public communications. For the 1970s it was the ABC trial. This shone a light on the darker corners of state surveillance and sparked a ferocious attempt by the government to criminalise journalists. At this special event, hear from those involved and the contemporary relevance in our post-Snowden world. This unique panel discussion will look at the events from those involved and consider how much has really changed and the threats to journalists and whistleblowers today.

The event is free, but a £5 donation to the Fund is requested in order to continue its work. Get tickets in advance here.

Duncan Campbell’s own site has many items of interest to do with the case and trial.