How We Met: Paul Foot and Ann Whelan

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The Independent Culture
Paul Foot, 56, worked for the Daily Mirror for 13 years until forced out in 1993; he now writes for Private Eye and the Guardian. He has been involved with Ann Whelan's campaign for her son, convicted of the Carl Bridgewater killing, since 1980, and has written a book on the case.

Ann Whelan lives near Birmingham. Since 1978 her only son, Michael Hickey, 31, has been in jail, convicted for murder with three others. She has been trying to prove their innocence ever since. The Home Secretary is now considering whether to return the case to appeal for the second time.

ANN WHELAN: I was at my wits' end. Michael had been convicted of this horrific crime of which he knew nothing. I trudged round the Midlands visiting people, and phoned anyone who I thought could help me prove my son's innocence, including journalists, lawyers and civil liberties groups. But nobody would listen. I wrote hundreds of letters asking for help. No one was going to help me. They were frightened. It was a very delicate case: a little boy had been murdered.

So my tack changed. I wrote saying will you please at least read to the end of this letter, or rang and said please listen to me - not please help me.

I wrote to Paul Foot saying I had proof of the four men's innocence, which I had. I didn't hear from him for several weeks and then I got a lovely letter saying he would like to know more.

The first time I met him was at the offices of Michael's former lawyer. I hoped he wouldn't think, 'Yes, this is a miscarriage of justice but I haven't got time to pursue it.' Everyone else had let us down - the courts, the police, the judiciary. I feared something else would take Paul's attention and our case would be shelved for a later date. I need have had no fear.

I liked Paul immediately. He is so honest and earthy. He inspired me. I had confidence in him. I thought, Paul Foot will stick with us, he's committed to the case. From then on he phoned me a lot and I pestered him. I was probably a bit of a pain, constantly leaving phone messages. I'm sure there were times when he thought, 'Oh God, not that Whelan woman again.' Even so, we got on very well. We were always honest with each other. I get carried away; he brings me down to earth.

When Paul became involved he gave the case an air of respectability. All of a sudden the media were contacting me. He cracked our case open. But sometimes he doesn't listen. I remember once he was banging on when a man was trying to tell us something important, and I told him there are times when he should bloody well shut up and listen. You can tell when he isn't, because he starts saying 'Mmm, yes, mmm . . .'

But he certainly listened to my many phone calls during the bitter winter of 1983-1984, when Michael was on the prison roof protesting his innocence in sub-zero temperatures. Paul had said he wanted to write a book but the time wasn't right. I thought it was and bullied him to get on with it. When Michael came down from the roof after 90 days, Paul began working on his marvellous account of the whole rotten story.

The book came out in 1986, and then a documentary with Paul in it appeared on the television, all of which contributed enormously to us getting back to the Court of Appeal. At the court in 1988 they had me in the dock for two and a half days and reduced me to tears, but they treated Paul completely differently, as though he was one of them. It's his upper- class voice and public school background that does it. Paul is aware of the pernicious effect that class divisions have. He is always on the side of the underdog and never uses his background to his own advantage.

Funnily enough, when I think of Paul, I don't think of him as a journalist but as a dedicated bloke driven by a loathing for injustice. And Michael's case is just one of many that Paul is involved in. Although he's incredibly busy and I have to badger him and corner him, he's always there when we need him, as he is for many others. He is a tower of strength and, apart from knowing him professionally, he is a lovely person. He's warm, he's generous and he's great company - incredibly funny. And he's a great mimic - I love to hear him impersonating and ridiculing those judges. He's a great friend and always will be.

PAUL FOOT: When Ann Whelan wrote to me in 1980, hers was one of the first letters I got after I joined the Mirror. I had taken an interest in the Carl Bridgewater case, but it seemed to me at first that they were all guilty. The jury had been unanimous, and the evidence seemed strong. So I wrote back saying, let's talk about this some time - a push-off sort of letter. Then I heard that an ambulanceman, Hubert Spencer, was up on trial for a murder committed just a few weeks after the convictions, and Ann Whelan sent me documents she had from the DPP indicating that Spencer had been a suspect in the Bridgewater case. I became very interested.

I first met Ann Whelan in October 1980 at her son Michael's former solicitor's office in Birmingham. The solicitor was silent. The most well-

informed person was Ann Whelan. She was instantly persuasive, and she didn't use any tricks or maternal love to win her argument - she won it out of her knowledge of the case. The main point was to persuade me to write an article, which I immediately did.

Ann and Fred came down for the leave to appeal hearing in December 1981. She was full of hope. We watched Lord Lane smash the leave to appeal. She stood up and made a protest nobody paid any attention to. It was a wonderful statement. She was nervous; her voice went up about 17 octaves. It was tremendously brave. The judges ran out like startled rabbits. Then she went down to see Michael in the cells, and she and Fred were utterly distressed.

We went out to lunch, and they were pleased there was somebody saying we've got to keep up the fight. That's when I became exceedingly friendly with Ann and Fred. We felt it was the three of us against the world. I went up to see Ann in Wythall, where she lives, and we went out investigating aspects of the case against Michael. For example, we went to see a woman who had said she'd seen an estate car at the farm at the time of the murder. We saw for ourselves that she could not possibly have made out whether it was an estate or a saloon. She got terribly agitated and her husband turfed us out. We met with nothing but hostility and unpleasantness. On another occasion we parked at the farm and walked around the outhouses. The owner was obviously alerted by somebody, and he came back from wherever he was, speeding down the lane, and screeched to a stop a foot from us.

Ann was a much better investigator than I was. I talk too much, and she'd tell me to shut up and listen.

I stayed with Ann and Fred during January 1986; it was there that I wrote most of my book about the case. Her knowledge of it is incredible. These cases are very difficult, especially with four defendants - Michael, his cousin Vincent, Pat Molloy and Jimmy Robinson. Four sets of papers, four sets of alibis - but she had it all laid out on the floor of her front room.

Having taken on the case, she went to all the prosecution witnesses guided by an absolute certainty that she was right. She knows her son didn't do the murder and so if somebody says he did, as far as she's concerned they must be lying. On that basis she's really blasted the whole thing open, and she's right, because everything that suggests the men are guilty just disintegrates under scrutiny.

She is a remarkable woman, but I think a lot of people have it in them to fight like this if they are confronted with such dreadful injustice. Ann is quite mild and not in the least conceited. She goes on telly but she doesn't get any thrill out of it - most people get swung along by all the publicity.

We have become very, very close friends. Whenever I see her I think: this is a real ally, an outstanding human being.-

(Photograph omitted)

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