Lawyers snub rule of law

At Twickenham on Saturday I was reminded of the Carmarthenshire funeral where one of those attending dropped down dead. The local paper reported that "the sudden death of Mr John Davies, who was highly respected in the district, cast a pall of gloom over the proceedings."

At the Pilkington final, however, the sudden death of Will Carling - even though there is now to be a resurrection - was the cause not so much of gloom as of anger. Never before had I seen the crowd in such a mood.

Crowds (as the French sociologist Gustave le Bon was the first to point out) have their own psychology: simpler, more violent than that of the individual. They are quick to anger, easily swayed, out for revenge. "A la Lanterne," they cry.

There was no doubt about the leading candidates for popular vengeance at HQ. One was Dennis Easby, the Rugby Football Union president and retired Reading solicitor who was chiefly responsible for depriving Carling of his captaincy. The other was dear old Dudley Wood, who is retiring from the secretaryship and played, as far as one can see, no part in Friday's punitive proceedings.

Indeed, it appears that, from the start, Wood tried to calm things down. But then, crowds do not discriminate any too nicely between guilt and innocence when their blood is up. Both Wood and Easby were booed with equal fervour when they put in their appearances at presentations of one sort or another. There were powerful chants of "Car-ling", "Car-ling" not only before the match, but afterwards as well.

With my instinctive sympathy for the underdog, I thought there must be something to be said in favour of the officials who were being reprobated by the crowd with such untiring vigour. Besides (for it is always as well to be conscious of one's own prejudices), Carling has never been my favourite rugby character.

He is a very good centre. As a captain, he is not so much the choice of the players as the creation of Geoff Cooke. Rob Andrew, Brian Moore and Dean Richards all had more powerful claims to the captaincy. He is the first player to use rugby, quite legitimately within the existing rules, to feather his own nest. It is, I suppose, to his credit that he wishes to extend to others the opportunities which he enjoys himself.

That was my initial response. Then I thought: "No. There are several factors which are in Carling's favour." One is that, astonishingly, Jack Rowell was not consulted. Another is that Carling did not think the "old farts" remark was part of the recording. Whether he was deceived or not, he claims to have been deceived; or, at least, to have been the victim of a misunderstanding.

Channel 4 pleads not guilty, claiming that Carling knew that what he said was liable to be transmitted. Other equally distinguished public figures have suffered from similar misunderstandings. The late Nicholas Ridley thought Dominic Lawson of the Spectator had turned the tape recorder off when he chose to make his unkind observations about the Germans. Norman Lamont believed Ginny Dougary of the Times had concluded her interview with him before he gave her his candid opinions about the members of the administration of which he had lately been a member.

Carling is merely the latest in a long line, and will not be the last. The criticism which can be made of him is that he, or his agent, failed to make what happened clear at the outset.

Then again, Easby and his five colleagues failed to apply the principles of natural justice. Not only were they judge in their own - the old farts' - cause. That could not have been avoided. For the RFU is the disciplinary authority. But Carling was not informed of the charges against him and not allowed to make representations on his own behalf.

As Dick Best points out, rugby union has recognised procedures for dealing with those charged with bringing the game into disrepute. These were not followed. And yet three of those who sat on the kangaroo court at the East India Club, are lawyers.

Moreover, if Carling was guilty of anything, it was of what the libel lawyers call "vulgar abuse". Vulgar abuse may be regrettable, but is not defamatory. In this as in other respects, the RFU would have done better to follow the law.

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