Richard Ingrams: No love lost between lawyers and journalists

Saturday 19 March 2011 01:00

This week, The Times asked "100 top lawyers" if they were in favour of public figures having the right to resort to law in order to keep their business and private affairs secret. Yes, they said. Only 27 per cent were against.

None of us should be surprised by the result of the poll. For whatever they may say about their firm and undying belief in the freedom of the press, most lawyers do not approve of journalists, any more than politicians do.

When you get a politician who is also a lawyer, like the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, one has even more reason to be sceptical about his proclaimed beliefs. This week we were told that Clarke is about to announce changes in the libel law to make things easier for the press in future.

But in the meantime, Clarke will do absolutely nothing about the flourishing new privacy legislation so popular with his fellow lawyers, not to mention with public figures like the disgraced former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Sir Fred Goodwin. And this new development represents a much greater threat to press freedom than any libel law. With the libel law you can publish and risk being sued. With the privacy law you cannot even publish.

Clegg's rocky road to vote reform

It doesn't seem so long ago that Nick Clegg was being compared in the press to Winston Churchill. Following his successful performance in the first TV debate of last year's election campaign, Clegg was acclaimed on all sides as the great white hope of British politics. Support for the Lib Dems rocketed, and the Tory press was reduced to hurriedly concocting a desperate smear campaign, the Daily Mail even managing to link him to the Nazis.

The triumphant Clegg, as we all know, subsequently joined forces with the Tories on condition that they would hold a referendum on the voting system. But the joke is that Clegg's reputation is now so low that were he to be allowed to spearhead the campaign for the alternative vote, it would almost certainly be defeated.

The point has not been lost on Ed Miliband, who is now refusing to go on to the pro-AV platform if Clegg is in the chair. So Clegg's place will now be taken by the former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, whose only resemblance to Churchill is his fondness for strong liquor – though unfortunately Charlie lacks the great man's ability to withstand its more damaging effects.

Secrets of the royal household

The strange and unsuitable relationships formed by members of the royal family are nothing new. It's just that in the old days it was easier to cover them up.

Queen Victoria's obsession with her Highland ghillie John Brown is well known. Now a book has been published about her Indian servant Hafiz Abdul Karim, known as the Munshi, who to a great extent replaced Brown in her affections after the latter's death.

I can remember my grandmother, who was Queen Victoria's maid of honour, often talking about the Munshi, as it was her husband, Queen Victoria's Scottish doctor Sir James Reid, who was expected by his fellow courtiers to protect the Queen from Karim, of whom she would hear no wrong but who was little better than an unscrupulous con man.

It was a difficult role. Sir James was asked on one occasion to supply to the Munshi's father – who he falsely claimed was a surgeon general in the Indian army (in fact he worked in a prison in Agra) – a huge supply of drugs including six pounds of laudanum, two ounces of pure strychnine and enough poisons, he estimated, "to kill 15,000 grown men or an enormously larger number of children".

Unfortunately, most of Sir James's intimate records concerning Queen Victoria were destroyed on his instructions after his death. They included the details of a meeting he recorded on 20 February 1897 when he "told the Queen about the Munshi having a relapse of venereal disease and had an interesting talk with her".

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