Bravo, Mr Fayed!
John Walsh watches Mohamed (you can call me Al) Fayed have his week in court
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 27 November 1999
The man on the bench embodying the majesty of the law is Mr Justice Morland, a droll and capricious figure equally capable of ticking off potentates as though they were small children, and refusing to let Queen's Counsels show the jury things he finds uninteresting. He sits forward in semi-alert posture, occasionally resting his head on one hand as the cross-examination slows to snail's pace. It often does. There are more documents in this courtroom, you suspect, than in the whole of the British Library. The jury are directed to "look at page 152 in Bundle No 6"; there are at least eight bundles.
Before us - "us" being the boys from The Sun and the Evening Standard, the chap from Channel 4, the lady court artist, the trio from The Guardian, the drop-in celebrities chasing material for their columns (Matthew Parris, Francis Wheen), the men from Talk Radio and LBC - is the back view of Desmond Browne QC. He is pink and prim and precise, hair greying under the bun of his wig. He's a relentless inquisitor, the litany of his questions extending into a single, prolonged baying noise. "Mr Fayed..." it goes. "Mr Fayed... Mr Fayed..." The stripped-down name of the defendant has reverberated on the chancery breeze until it has become a kind of noise, a tone of simple exasperation, a puzzled music: "Mystified... mystified... mystified". Mr Browne has spent five days demanding attention, respect and straight answers from a man wholly unable to oblige him.
The man is Mohamed Al Fayed, the Egyptian-born businessman being sued for libel by the former MP Neil Hamilton for alleging that Mr Hamilton accepted cash, gift vouchers and free holidays at the Paris Ritz from Mr Fayed, in return for asking questions on his behalf in the House of Commons. All eyes in the court are on the Harrods chairman. Mr Fayed sits on a chair in the witness box, looking like a man in a little boat, floating, out of his natural element, somewhere above the heads of the audience.
He wears immaculately cut double-breasted suits, in light grey checks or dark pinstripes, and the 40 globe-lights of the court chandeliers bounce off his polished cranium. His face in repose is dark and brooding; the eyes are heavy-lidded, though they open wide from time to time in exasperation or parodic surprise. In front of him is a little Thermos flask of tea or iced water, from which he takes tiny sips. Sometimes he pulls a sweet from his pocket and nibbles it, or wipes his mouth with a white handkerchief. He looks like a tidy man, a man who likes to be organised. But has his passion for arranging the world to suit himself caused his downfall?
Before the jury is a simple proposition: that Neil Hamilton, then an MP serving his community, did or did not let himself be bought by the prospect of a few thousand quid. But before they get to the truth or otherwise of this transaction, they have a lot of other stuff to mull over. This is a libel trial. Mr Hamilton isn't being tried; Mr Fayed is. And so not just the facts of the case are at issue, but every fact known about Mr Fayed, everything about his personality, his business dealings, his moral universe, until a pattern emerges about the likelihood of his knowing the truth from a bar of soap.
Having Mr Fayed in the witness box was an invitation to a beheading, and Desmond Browne QC, seized it with both hands. Despite the twists and turns of his cross-examination, he had a clear and simple agenda. He was out to prove Mr Fayed a liar. Not any old common-or-garden teller of porkies, but a compulsive Baron Munchausen, a man who would lie about the sky being blue and the grass green, a man who'd lie about his children, his granny, his own existence.
He wanted to present the owner of Harrods as an ogre of mendacity, compared to whom Jeffrey Archer was the young George Washington. He threw everything into it. How many ships Fayed owned (and were they in fact ships at all?); whether he told DTI inspectors his IMS group cost him 25 million pounds or dollars; whether he was even using his real name...
The Egyptian responded with a curious mixture of a disdain for precise details and a reckless willingness to believe almost anything. On Monday he recited his familiar conspiracy theories about the crash that killed his son and Princess Diana (it was a secret service plot, in case you've forgotten, masterminded by the Duke of Edinburgh). On Tuesday, he said the former Home Secretary Michael Howard ("a crook and a bastard") had been bribed pounds 1.5m by Tiny Rowland, and that Margaret Thatcher set up a hostile enquiry into how he bought Harrods because she was worried that Fayed's rival, Rowland, would blow the whistle on her son's arms deals.
On Wednesday the court heard how he had bullied, bugged, harassed and threatened former members of Harrods staff, some of whom had wound up under arrest in the Middle East, accused of embezzlement. He recalled none of it, but remembered that one had been sacked because "he was an idiot, an incompetence". On Thursday he informed Desmond Browne that a former employee called Bromfield, sacked for fiddling his overtime payments, had been tracked down by Browne and his client, Hamilton, and bribed to appear for the plaintiff.
An extraordinary scenario was gradually unfolding. It began to emerge that Mr Fayed holds certain truths to be unassailable: that if someone opposes his interests, it is because they are in the control of another; that everyone is a potential crook unless proved otherwise; that "facts" and objective truth are no better than approximations and likelihoods; that anyone who testifies against him has been bribed to speak; and that he himself is well above the law, above any impertinent questions asked by some mewling pipsqueak in an old wig.
The deep joy of this trial has been the gladiatorial struggle between not just two men, the brief and the millionaire, but between two world views. What's been on display in Court 13 has been a titanic struggle between the British Establishment and an Eastern potentate who seeks either to join it or to subvert it, without ever quite deciding which.
All week they have sparred. Browne has said "Is this true?" perhaps a thousand times; Fayed has said (in his unique and resourceful idiolect) "Best of my recollection." Bridling with importance, Browne has kept the lid on his contempt: "If you actually listened, there might just be the remote chance of your understanding the question." Fayed never concealed his disgust at being grilled by the Old Etonian: "This you think is important?" he sneered when asked the thickness of the envelopes holding Hamilton's bribe.
Was it a snob fight? You bet. I lost count of the number of times Fayed declared himself too grand to know things that Browne wanted to know. What denominations do Harrods vouchers come in? "I dunno. I not a cashier." The Ritz has a franking or stamping machine, does it not? "I dunno. I not the concierge." He was sending Browne a coded message: "I am the richest man you'll ever meet. I could buy you and this whole courtroom if I put my mind to it." And Browne was sending a coded message back to him: "I could get you sent to jail."
And there were times in this struggle when you felt a sneaking regard for Mr Fayed. Maybe it was Mr Browne's constant needling and the provocative yap of his voice; maybe it was Mr Fayed's jovial smile when confronted by photographers; but you felt yourself warming to him. He gave good trial. He performed. He was so on that stage. He seethed and vituperated. On Friday, he even wept about having to sit in court with "crooked people". Sometimes it was hard to believe you weren't watching a performance scripted by a mildly racist master of invective. That take-me-to-the-Kasbah delivery! ("The witness statement is done in different time of times. The gods give me my brain, I do best to remember.") That verbal dyslexia! ("You are translating facts to suit yourself."). Those badger-and-vixen exchanges! (Browne: "Now as to the Ritz bill. I'm not going to go through the whole bill..." Fayed: "You going through enough garbage already.")
It was fantastic. He is a master of the sarcastic aside, the hint that the brilliant barrister in front of him is both stupid and crooked. There may be those who would no more trust Mr Fayed with their money than they'd trust Lord Archer to run a salt-beef bar, but goodness he's good value. And in the set of his jaw was a promise that something climactic was coming.
It came on Thursday morning. Intrigued to learn, from Fayed's bank manager, that he was in the habit of drawing scores of thousands of pounds three times a week, Browne asked, "What on earth are you doing with weekly withdrawals of between pounds 60,000 and pounds 120,000?"
Fayed retorted, "What is the question? Is not your business." Browne plunged on: "I suggest you use these huge sums to lubricate your way through business, finding a way of easing your relations with other people by paying them sums of cash which you know they will not be accounting for for tax."
Fayed hit the roof. "What you are saying is absolute rubbish... you don't understand what kind of person I am, what culture I come from, what commitments I have..." One more question and Fayed was yelling: "I need the cash and it's none of your business. My personal life is my personal life. It's none of your bloody business. Get on with the subject and don't waste the time of everybody."
It was an impressive flash of stroppy pride, and it was hard not to sympathise with Mr Fayed. What this week has shown is the spectacle of a man both enlarged and coarsened by money, a man who suddenly learns the limits of what it can achieve. It's been a learning-curve, seeing the hurt look on Fayed's face, at the disrespect he's received from these Lilliputian briefs, as he sits suspended before them in his wooden boat. How can they treat the big man, the owner of Harrods, like this?
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