A rabbit out of his hat

PROFILE: George Carman; Tim Hulse wonders if the libel lawyer extraordinaire still possesses the same old adversarial magic
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SO WHAT do you say if you're a newspaper editor and a Conservative Cabinet minister calls a press conference to announce that he's issued a writ for defamation against your paper? In April 1995, as Jonathan Aitken ended his denunciation of the Guardian's "misrepresentations, falsehoods and lies" with his bold promise to "start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play", the first words to fall from Alan Rusbridger's lips were these: "We'd better get Carman."

The call to George Carman QC is a pretty standard reaction these days when a libel case rears it ugly head. And it doesn't matter which end of the writ you're on - tellingly, the next words to fall from Rusbridger's lips were: "before Aitken gets him". From tomorrow, Carman will be strutting his stuff in the High Court once again as he acts for Richard Branson. The case emanates from a bundle of libel writs arising from a meeting Branson had in 1993 with Guy Snowden of GTech, a US lottery equipment manufacturer that has a 22.5 per cent stake in Camelot, the National Lottery operator.

At a lunch meeting at Branson's west London home, the Virgin tycoon alleges Snowden said to him: "In what way can I help you? I'm sure everybody needs something." Branson claimed in a BBC Panorama programme that this constituted an offer of a backhander to get him to pull out of the contest to run the new lottery. Snowden denied the offer was made and writs flew: Branson against Snowden for claiming he was being called a liar; Snowden to Branson for saying he offered a bribe.

Whatever the outcome, it is yet another high-profile case for Britain's highest-profile QC, whose career has left many a tattered reputation in its wake. There was Jani Allan, the South African journalist who attempted to sue Channel 4 over allegations that she had an affair with the neo- Nazi Eugene Terre Blanche. Carman unexpectedly produced a notebook in which she described explicit "sexual fantasies" concerning an airline pilot and a gun smuggler. Then there was the EastEnders actress Gillian Taylforth, who with her fiance Geoff Knights sued the Sun for repeating a police claim that the couple had had oral sex on an A1 slip road in Hertfordshire. Carman, who seemingly has a gift for producing rabbits out of hats (some call it luck), stunned the court when he revealed the existence of a video of Taylforth brandishing a sausage and bragging, "I give very good head". Sonia Sutcliffe, husband of the Yorkshire Ripper, and Mona Bauwens, friend of David Mellor, both had equally unpleasant experiences at his hands.

Others have Carman to thank. There's Imran Khan for one, for whom Carman acted in the cricket-ball tampering case brought by Ian Botham and Allan Lamb. And Jason Connery was another, when he took on the Sun after it falsely quoted him as saying he'd rather be buried alive than fight for his country. Outside the libel arena, other famous names whom Carman has successfully defended are Jeremy Thorpe (conspiracy to murder), Coronation Street actor Peter Adamson (indecent assault), and Ken Dodd (tax fiddling).

Carman doesn't come cheap. His appearance fee is around pounds 10,000 a day and his annual income is at least pounds 500,000. A letter simply stating that you are consulting George Carman is said to set you back about five grand and it's proof that the mere name of Carman can sometimes be enough to get results.

Once you've engaged his services, you'll find yourself in a room at his chambers in Gray's Inn. If it's winter, you may notice a slight chill, because the windows will be open to allow for his beagle-like Marlboro habit. He'll fire questions at you which appear to be completely unrelated to each other. Then after an hour he'll give you a summary of the case and you'll suddenly understand the point of the questions. And he'll also tell you his opinion of the chances of you winning, something most other barristers are reluctant to do.

But Carman isn't like most other barristers. He's old for a start. He's 68 and most of his contemporaries are either retired or are on the bench. This alone makes him a "slight oddball", as one eminent QC puts it. Whether Carman covets elevation to the bench is a matter for debate. He has said that he's content to be an advocate. And he exists to an extent outside the cosy environment of the legal establishment. "He's not 'one of them'," says one legal writer who knows Carman well. "He's not a big deal on the Bar Council and he's not a member of a lot of the usual societies that lawyers join. He's quite a loner, he's not an establishment figure at all." Which is not to say that Carman harbours any animosity towards the legal establishment. Indeed he looks upon the country's legal institutions with the utmost respect.

PERHAPS it's Carman's courtroom manner that really marks him out. He's showbizzy and aggressive in a world where gentlemanly good manners are the norm, and this can make him unpopular with judges. During the Aitken case, Mr Justice Popplewell tended to treat Carman's theatrics (which, in the absence of a jury, were for his sole benefit) with a certain amount of impatience, not to say irritation. (It was perhaps significant that when Popplewell saw a courtroom artist's drawing of himself and Carman on Sky TV, he asked her to draw him another sketch as a memento of the trial, but specified: "The same as last time, but without George Carman in it".)

Carman's opponents are often quick to criticise his technique. During the Mona Bauwens case, Richard Hartley QC maintained that Carmen had subjected his client to a "verbal mugging". (In a similar vein, Jonathan Aitken memorably described himself as having been "Carmanised".)

And Michael Beloff QC described Carman during the Gillian Taylforth case as the "Torvill and Dean of advocacy rolled into one, but with this important difference: straight sixes for style, straight zeros for content".

Edwina Currie felt the full force of a Carman cross-examination when she sued the Observer over a piece which suggested she would commit murder in order to get on. "The main technique that he uses is to try and undermine the witness by suggesting that his or her character is not pristine, although in fact that may be completely irrelevant to the argument," she says. "It's quite seductive stuff. It starts off with honeyed words and then he'll throw in quite a barbed comment. Self-opinionated and vain witnesses will be first softened up and then completely thrown, which then destroys their capability to give credible evidence." Currie, who says she's "used to insinuating comments from all sorts of men", refused to be thrown, and the case ended in one of Carman's rare defeats.

Most legal insiders agree that Carman's greatest talent is his ability as a jury advocate. His language is lucid and free from legal jargon and he knows how to catch a jury's eye with a telling phrase or image. "He's a very good cross-examiner. I think he's got a good feel for what juries attach importance to," says Charles Gray QC, who represented Jonathan Aitken in the Guardian case and has crossed swords with Carman on many occasions.

Unlike most of his colleagues Carman came to libel quite late. He spent his early career on the Northern Circuit, based in Manchester. Sir Robin Day, near-contemporary of Carman at Oxford, recalls having dinner with him in Blackpool during the Sixties, when Carman told him he was thinking of quitting the Bar. "I persuaded him not to," says Day. "He was a bit depressed about the Bar like a lot of people are when they're starting. I told him: 'It's a great profession, you'll come through and you'll do well.' He was a very brilliant lawyer and he'd got a First at Balliol and everything like that."

Carman's big break came in 1978 when Sir David Napley, solicitor to the famous, telephoned to say that if charges were brought against his client Jeremy Thorpe, Carman would be retained to act for him. Napley had talent- spotted Carman six years earlier when he'd seen him secure the acquittal of a funfair manager charged with manslaughter after a Big Dipper collapsed. "It seemed to me the jury were mesmerised," Napley recalled in his memoirs.

After the Thorpe victory, more high-profile criminal cases followed. It was only in the early Nineties that Carman began to be known for his libel work and in a short space of time he would become almost as celebrated as many of his clients. The "Carman phenomenon" had begun.

"There was a phase he went through when he seemed to win all the high- profile libel cases," says the legal writer quoted above when asked to explain the Carman phenomenon. "I don't think for a moment he's got the best record but he just happens to have been in the ones that got a lot of publicity. He suddenly became the fashionable person to get."

Charles Gray describes the Carman phenomenon as "very odd" and finds its possible explanation in the nature of some of his clients. "He's had several successes for newspapers," says Gray, "and if one dare say it, newspapers are always quite keen on contemplating their own navels and I think they give him a good lashing of publicity for that reason."

IT'S certainly true that Carman is very journo-friendly. He's happy to accept a drink from an interested hack and during a case he'll often ask a passing reporter how he thinks it's going. There's even a story, possibly apocryphal, that during the case in which Carman successfully defended Dr Leonard Arthur, a paediatrician charged with murder after prescribing "nursing care only" for a Downs Syndrome baby, he approached the assembled courtroom hacks before his closing speech and made a small wager with them. Within 10 minutes, he said, he would have the third juror from the left on the back row in tears. Naturally the hacks were watching closely with their stopwatches out, so the story goes, and sure enough, after nine minutes and 30 seconds, the aforementioned juror wiped a tear from her eye. Carman paused for a glass of water, turned round, winked at the press bench and carried on.

Outside the courtroom, Carman's life is as blameless as it is somehow dull. "He doesn't amount to much more than his cuttings", is how one acquaintance puts it. He lives alone in a five-bedroomed house in Wimbledon. He's been married and divorced three times and has a son from his second marriage. He once commented that "barristers make bad husbands". If you find yourself sitting next to him at dinner you'll find him a little shy but good fun, although it's unlikely his conversation will stray far from the law. He doesn't list any recreations in Who's Who, but he's a skilled pianist who can play by ear.

Recently there have been whisperings that the Carman phenomenon may be faltering, that perhaps George isn't the power he used to be. That's not the case as far as Alan Rusbridger is concerned. He confesses he was "gobsmacked" by Carman's ability to demonstrate photographic recall of a mass of information during a cross-examination which lasted several days and to switch effortlessly from talking about the regulatory functions of the IBA to questioning a witness on the specifics of an arms deal in the late Seventies.

It's fair to say that until crucial documents were discovered at the last minute (another rabbit out of the hat from George), several aspects of the Aitken case were looking a bit grim for Carman. So it could be that the Branson case, which is expected to last for three or four weeks, will be something of an acid test as to whether the old magic is still there. Whatever the outcome, it's pretty certain we can expect the usual forensic fireworks. And watch out for those rabbits.