“The Lavender List” on BBC TV and the Libel Suit that Followed


IT’S always hard to empathise with famous people. In the public’s mind famous people aren’t really human; they are objects of fantasy, ridicule, admiration, contempt, mistrust, worship or lust but not people. They don’t really exist as human beings, and so the public doesn’t think that they have human responses to human situations.  While that may actually be true in some cases, that was not the case with the BBC 4 programme “the Lavender List”.

Artistically, academically and morally this programme is a disgrace. It is basically Joe Haines’ entire fantasy world reproduced as historical fact on national television at taxpayer’s expense with the help of some lacklustre writing by the flaccid Francis Wheen. Lady Falkender was never consulted about the programme, nor was she paid anything for the programme, nor was she given a right to reply; the only concession to her as a human being was a small line of white text on black at the end of the programme saying she denied everything in the programme. Those who have felt the clammy hand of Fleet Street on their shoulder will immediately recognise the trick. An hour’s worth of condemnation, dramatised as historical fact, is followed up by one line of denial. In the viewer’s mind that merely exaggerates the idea of guilt: “she would say that wouldn’t she”.

Nor were objections to the BBC programme based on hurt feelings as so many people assumed after the fact. You cannot sue for libel because of hurt feelings. No, the objections to the programme were focused on the fact that the sale of honours is a criminal offence and Lady Falkender in her 70s and confined to a wheelchair had to watch the BBC frame her for an hour committing a crime that not only did she not commit, but which never even happened.

It’s hard to communicate to people who have never been in the media the terrifying power that journalists wield, combined with their appallingly childish attitude to their victims, or their non-existent professional standards. Journalists rationalise the damage they do to their victims based on the blithe assumption that the famous people they “work over” have made so much money from the media that they deserve some “blowback”.

Again, that was not the case with Lady Falkender or with the story of the “Lavender List”. This was packaged as entertainment, but Lady Falkender is not an entertainer she was a political figure. Besides, entertainers get paid and in 40 years of destroying her reputation and family life, the media never paid her a single penny.

No. This was not entertainment, this was politics packaged as entertainment.

Nevertheless a bomb needs to be defused not ignored, so a libel suit was started with Peter Carter Ruck the City of London libel lawyers whose reputation rests on the laurels of their founder.

Carter-Schmuck

ALL the way through the 1980s and 1990s Peter Carter Ruck gained a reputation as the libel lawyer Fleet Street most feared. His hawkish features and raptor-esque mind merely served to emphasise the danger. Yet, with Peter Carter Ruck's passing all that was left was a shell. None of the journalists we spoke to held post-Peter, Carter Ruck up as anything to be nervous about. Quite the opposite. And, sad to say that was our experience of this very expensive firm of City of London libel lawyers.

At first Carter Ruck were only interested in a quick, smash-and-grab no win no fee suit. So they readily signed Lady Falkender up and merrily proceeded to sell her out for a quick £10,000 damages and a pro-forma Blairite expression of sympathy for her hurt feelings. That may seem like a lot of money to most people, but to a billion pound corporation like the BBC, that is peanuts. It would not have recompensed Lady Falkender to the damage to her reputation, or what was left of it, it would not have stopped the British media calling her a crook and the newspapers were obviously gearing up to try and present this as both a pay off to Lady Falkender and a vindication of everything they were saying. Only a substantial libel victory would cause the requisite noetic shock to the group mind the media had created, and act as a deterrent to further harrassment.

Yet it was clear that the lawyer we were given, Claire Gill, was not up to the job. Every meeting felt like we were taking on a panzer division with a rubber spear. She insisted on always agreeing with the BBC against her own clients.