Interview: Honour bound to fight: Geraldine Bedell on the peer with principles who stood by his student accused of rape

Geraldine Bedell
Saturday 23 October 1993 23:02

THE Austen Donellan case was messy, at times farcical; but for Earl Russell, Professor of British History at King's College, London, and Donellan's personal tutor, it was a triumph. Conrad Russell stood by his student against the college. He refused to countenance the murky plea-bargaining deal offered; he encouraged Donellan to risk a criminal trial, found him a first-class lawyer, and offered him unwavering moral support. 'The strength Lord Russell gave Austen enabled him to see it through,' says Michael Fisher, Donellan's solicitor. 'Without him, Austen might have gone under.' Donellan was acquitted at the Old Bailey last Tuesday.

The fifth Earl Russell first heard at a regular end-of-term meeting that Donellan (having spent the night with a female student, who had been drinking heavily) was likely to be accused of rape. 'I had always got on well with him, and liked him,' he says of Donellan now. 'I'd had some dealings with him when a knee injury had stopped him playing football, which depressed him a bit.' Lord Russell offered to act for Donellan should there be a college tribunal. 'As far as he knew he had made love with consent. I checked his story every way round, and was convinced he was telling the truth.' Lord Russell is flattered that, after the trial, Austen told him that being cross-examined by him and Michael Fisher had been more gruelling than by the prosecution.

Donellan was formally accused early the following term, only after he had made a statement was he told he had the right to remain silent. 'The difficulty for Lord Russell was always whether to risk facing all that publicity at the Old Bailey, which is a punishment in itself,' says Fisher. 'It was a very difficult decision, but he made up his mind and didn't waver. He saw a blatant case of injustice: he felt this man was innocent and had to be defended properly.'

This ability to face down the system, is, you sense, typical. Russell recalls when he was 15 'being in a group of people who were all against conforming. I realised that that was capable of becoming a religion too, and I remember deciding very firmly that I wouldn't be like that. I would never assume I could tell the truth from whether an idea was left-wing or right-wing. I am, I suppose, an old-fashioned traditional radical.' With, one might add, a generous spirit. Asked about the woman in the case, his response is to hope she is getting sympathetic advice. 'I've disqualified myself, of course, from helping her.'

Lord Russell took advice from colleagues in the Lords as to the likelihood of a fair trial from the college tribunal; he asked Helena Kennedy (whom he knew through his work with the women's refuge movement) to recommend a solicitor. From then, he says, his role was 'to give Austen a sense that he wasn't totally alone', and, once they got to trial, 'to be there with a cigarette and lighter when he came out from cross-examination'.

The irony of his involvement, as Bertrand Russell's son, in a case which throws into question the wisdom of sexual licence, is not lost on him; his father campaigned for sexual freedom (not least, his own) and was once described by a woman forced to share a taxi with him as having hands like dry leaves rustling up and down her legs. 'Contraception and female employment have changed the whole system of sexual relations,' Lord Russell says. 'What people can do with each other, and what the signals are now, need to be worked out from the beginning. It will take a hundred years at least.'

CONRAD Russell was born 56 years ago; his mother, Marjorie Spence (always known as Peter), was Bertrand Russell's third wife. He spent much of his early childhood in America, where his father was teaching. When he returned to Britain at the age of eight, it was without a trace of an American accent - indicative, he thinks, of his refusal to join groups.

We met at his Edwardian red-brick villa in Kilburn, London. On the walls hang portraits of his illustrious ancestors, he worries about the bookcase, which is held together only by the volumes it contains. If he doesn't look much like a traditional earl, he certainly looks like a professor - wild white hair, dark eyebrows, and sharp eyes belying a mild, other-worldly demeanour. He speaks precisely, indulging occasionally in donnish wordplay, and smokes constantly. (He has given up giving up, having tried 12 times). In dark pin-striped suit and silk shirt, he looks distinguished; his manners are old-fashioned.

He was bullied at his first school, Dartington, and was taken away by his parents and sent to Eton. It was at around this time (he doesn't care to talk about it: 'It is a fractured family, and I don't want to go into detail') that his parents divorced acrimoniously. His mother, who got custody, prevented him from seeing his father until he went to university, he is vague about whether his mother is still alive.

In 1962, Conrad married Elizabeth Sanders, who had been one of his students. Evidently a romantic man, in the preface to a recent book he offered it to her as a silver wedding present. When he describes choosing the Liberals (in earlier years he had wandered between the Labour and Liberal parties), he recalls agreeing with every word of a Jeremy Thorpe speech: 'And that was final. Like falling in love, it doesn't change.'

He lists uxoriousness as one of his recreations in Who's Who, along with swimming and cricket. 'The only thing wrong with marriage,' he says, 'is not seeing enough of each other.' This all seems very different from his

oft-married, oft-straying father, though he is adamant that if his father had found Edith, his fourth wife, first, 'it would have lasted a lifetime. They were absolutely perfectly suited. He and I ended up being suited by the same kind of wife - one who has a healthy mixture of total acceptance and an astringent lack of respect.'

In the days when Conrad Russell met his wife, men and women dealt differently with one another. He was aware that, in his sensitive position, 'courtship could not proceed unless my intentions were, in the old-fashioned way, strictly honourable, which meant I had to be very sure, and know her very well first'. Now the dance is less stately; the moves are less precise, and young people can misinterpret them. 'There has been a big change since Aids, a cult of non- penetrative sex. A woman has to be entitled to say no right up to the last minute, and it has to be a crime if a man ignores it. But a man has to know what he is getting into. And we have to consider what constitutes reasonable grounds to believe consent has been given, 20 years ago it would have been a woman undressing in front of a man, but now it isn't'

He is not particularly worried that the law is increasingly being asked to adjudicate the intimate details of what used to be private life. 'It may be difficult to find a line, but there is a line where seduction slips over into force. The law knows it is doing something difficult, which is why the safeguards exist.' He would like to see those safeguards extended to provide anonymity for the accused until proven guilty. 'Austen has taken this extremely well, and if we can get him a job, there will be a chance for the memories to fade. But it is a colossal risk to take with anyone's life, and even if he's all right, the next person might be harmed.' He would also like to see anonymity extended to witnesses. Two potential witnesses for the defence couldn't face having their sex lives raked over in the full glare of the nation's gaze. Lord Russell expended considerable energy trying to get those who did testify in and out of the Old Bailey out of sight of photographers.

AT 21, Lord Russell couldn't decide whether to take up history, politics or the law. Recently, he has been doing all three - on one memorable day last week, all in the same day. As the Liberal Democrats' spokesman on social security in the House of Lords, he campaigns for childcare for people on benefit, benefits for 16- and 17-year-olds, the autonomy of the universities, and women's refuges. 'I had a case referred to me recently of an 18-year-old who was stealing to pay poll tax. Now what does a law abiding peer do about that?' he asks with relish - clearly the son of the man who was wont to ask him when he was seven whether it was possible to know that there are more grains of sand on the beach than he could actually see. (He said yes, and still thinks it is; his father said no).

The qualities he ascribes to Austen Donellan (and to Donellan's mother, who became a friend during the trial) - 'integrity, guts, warmth, interest in other people's troubles' - might equally apply to himself. Michael Fisher says that, throughout the trial, 'he conducted himself like a good lawyer, sleuth-like. If I were in trouble, and Lord Russell was involved, I would be a much happier person.'

(Photograph omitted)

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