Richard Ingrams' Week: 'Forkbender' and the dangers of litigation

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The Independent Online

Francis Wheen's entertaining BBC play The Lavender List brought back memories of the strange period, 1974-6, Harold Wilson's second brief premiership, during which he came increasingly under the control of his domineering private secretary, Marcia Williams (now Lady Falkender - or Forkbender, as Private Eye dubbed her).

My main objection to the otherwise most enjoyable play was that Gina McKee, who played Marcia, was much too pretty. The Marcia I remember certainly had a little girl image, but she had an iron will and there was a slightly crazed look about her. She also had buck teeth. Malcolm Muggeridge once described her as "a randy, hysterical woman".

Perhaps I am biased on this score because it is undoubtedly true that, in 1976, Marcia encouraged Sir James Goldsmith, with whom she enjoyed a close relationship, to destroy Private Eye, of which I was then editor.

She did so partly to revenge herself on the Eye, which, in 1974, had exposed the extent of her influence over Wilson as well as revealing the existence of her two children by the Daily Mail's political editor, Walter Terry. Another great friend, Lord Weidenfeld, convinced that that magazine was a dangerously anti-Semitic organ, urged her on. Goldsmith not only issued 64 writs on his own behalf, but set up a fund to enable others to sue.

Luckily for us, the plot misfired. As a result, partly, of the publicity generated by all the writs, Goldsmith was deprived of the peerage which Falkender had put down for him on her famous Lavender List. He had to be content with a knighthood.

Like many aspects of the Falkender story, Goldsmith's citation "for services to exports and ecology" has never been fully explained. But the campaign against the Eye showed the dangers of getting involved in litigation - a lesson Prince Charles appears never to have learned.

More plot twists than a Dan Brown novel

Century, the publishers, has just issued a new edition of the best-selling book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, by three authors, two of whom, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, are currently engaged in a highly publicised copyright action in the High Court.

Their book, originally published more than 20 years ago, is a farrago of nonsense supposedly showing that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and that their descendants have been protected ever since by a secret society of famous people, including Leonardo da Vinci, the freemasons and possibly even the Duke of Devonshire.

The authors of this ludicrous saga, long ago shown to be the invention of a loony French fascist, are claiming in court that Dan Brown, left, author of The Da Vinci Code, stole their story to make his millions.

The difficulty they face is that, unlike Brown, they claim that their book is history. The new edition, filled with maps, illustrations and several forewords, makes no bones about this. So how can they claim to own the copyright of what they tell us is historical fact?

The new edition raises another pertinent question. Has it not been published now in an expensive £20 format partly because of the amazing worldwide success of Mr Brown's thriller?

So, while suing Brown for breach of copyright, Messrs Baigent and Leigh make it look as if they are quite happy at the same time to take advantage of all the publicity surrounding his book by reissuing their own.

Whatever the truth, I have thought for a long time that the story of this holy blood nonsense would make a much more entertaining book than the Leigh/Baigent saga. Now it is up to some clever person to write it.

* A profile in this paper of Ms Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign secretary who came to London this week to rally support for her anti-Hamas policy, illustrates again the hazards of making "glorification of terrorism" a criminal offence.

Ms Livni is said to be very proud of her father, who has engraved on his tombstone the epitaph: "Here lies the head of operations of the Irgun," Irgun being described as "a pre-independence military organisation set up to fight the British and the Arabs".

That is no doubt how Ms Livni and her father would like to think of Irgun. Others, like the British relatives of those who were blown up in the famous bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, might think differently. They would regard Irgun not as a pre-independence military organisation, but as a gang of terrorists - a kind of Israeli equivalent of today's Hamas.

My dictionary defines terrorism as "the systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal". If that is right, then Irgun would surely qualify. So, for that matter, would the campaigners for "animal rights" who have carried out a ruthless war of intimidation against those who work in scientific laboratories where animals are experimented on. If anyone deserves the terrorist label, these people do. But, for whatever reason, they are never so described. "Activists" or "extremists" are the preferred labels.

It all goes to show how dangerous are Blair's proposals to make the "glorification of terrorism" an offence. But, as so often nowadays, it is being left to the unelected members of the House of Lords to try to stop it. Some chance.