Whether Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical which opens next week about the life and death of Stephen Ward succeeds or fails it is a generous gesture for the impresario to use this device as the platform to campaign for a judicial review of the conviction half a century ago of the society osteopath. It was an event which led directly to his suicide. He was at the centre of the Profumo sex and spies scandal which rocked Britain in 1963 when the War minister had an affair with the showgirl Christine Keeler who claimed to be sleeping with a London-based Russian intelligence officer Eugene Ivanov at the same time.
Ward killed himself having been targeted by a vindictive state seeking a scapegoat for Profumo's behaviour; was prosecuted for crimes that it is now generally accepted he did not commit, facing evidence from witnesses who were coerced by police into lying; and pilloried by a hysterical tabloid press.
Fearing contamination, most of his many "friends" deserted him, and British intelligence agencies who had been happy to use him failed to speak up for him in court. Ward was a broken man when he took an overdose of sleeping tablets while staying with one last friend in a flat in Chelsea. I know. I was with him that night.
The anniversary has been celebrated by conspiracy theorists crawling, blinking into the light to announce to stunned newspaper readers the sensational revelation that Stephen Ward "may" have been murdered by MI5. A former colleague of mine from 40 years ago, the author Anthony Summers, a man with some form when it comes to conspiracy theories, has now determined that: "One can see why it may, repeat may, have been necessary to remove Ward from the scene … this was apparently a man with dangerous knowledge … he had inside information of MI5 efforts to manipulate Ivanov and the seamy activities of Establishment figures."
Summers has lent his reputation to a conspiracy theory – please don't giggle – which has an MI5 contract killer hiding in the Chelsea flat all night, then waking the drowsy Ward every few hours and inciting him to take ever increasing overdoses of the sleeping tablets which eventually killed him. The alleged killer is now conveniently dead but allegedly told a gabby friend on his deathbed…
Summers's interviews on this well publicised theory, published by two reputable national newspapers last week, brim with weasel words. "The story ends with a question mark," says Summers darkly. No it doesn't.
It is junk journalism at its very worst, complete piffle, a disgrace to our trade. Believe it if you believe Lord Lucan and Elvis are living under pseudonyms in a mud hut in Uganda. We are in so many ways the first and often the last draft of history; newspaper records and their on-line spill-over really do matter. Lies and rotten journalism go viral in seconds. We really do have a clear compact with our readers, listeners and viewers to get it right.
We are in enough trouble with Leveson and hacking and the shame of neurotic celebrity worship, without allowing so-called investigative journalism reaching "maybe" and "could have" conclusions without a shred of primary source evidence. And even less so when the "revelation" is tied in with a re-hashed book release.
What baffles me is that Summers did not bother to make the two simple "check your facts" phone calls, one to me and one to the other man in the flat that night, the tenant Noel Howard-Jones. They would have brought his loony-tunes theory crashing to the ground. Summers also seems to have forgotten that MI5 and MI6 don't do assassinations. Period. State-sanctioned killings, invariably against major terrorist organisations or well-armed enemies of the state, are done by others. So let me try to set the record straight with some facts.
What did happen on the night of Tuesday 30 July 1963 at Vale Court, 20 Mallord Street, Chelsea? Stephen was overnighting there with his friend Noel Howard-Jones. That evening Stephen called me in the Daily Express newsroom and asked me to come over to Mallord Street. I arrived there about 8.30pm. He was writing what I now know were his suicide notes. A friend Julie Gulliver was in the kitchen cooking dinner. Howard-Jones was out. I stayed with Stephen for several hours during which he gave me the note addressed to me, which regrettably I didn't read till later.
At about 11.35pm, I left him, and he left the flat to drive Julie back to her flat in Bayswater. Howard-Jones returned a few minutes later, and was there to let Ward in on his return at about midnight before going to bed. Ward then continued writing notes including one to Howard-Jones saying "delay resuscitation as long as possible".
There was no MI5 assassin hiding in the flat when Stephen, Julie and I were there; and there was no assassin when Howard-Jones returned. So we can account for the entire evening from 8.45pm to the moment Howard-Jones found Ward unconscious on the living-room divan in the morning. We know, for certain that no MI5 murderer was hiding in the tiny flat. Even the alleged "instrument of murder" – the Nembutal sleeping tablets, were Stephen's own.
Does all this matter – half a century later? Very much so. In a democracy, a free press must be trusted. Once we break down the firewalls between truth and conspiracy theory, once we enter the wilderness of unreality, paranoid fantasy will become our guide. Yes, this stuff sells more papers than the grey truth. But that makes it no less a form of editorial pornography. Don't believe all you read in the press? Sadly true.
Tom Mangold, former senior correspondent for BBC TV's 'Panorama', covered the Profumo Affair for the Daily Express in 1963
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