A MYSTERY TO MIX FACT AND FICTION
Guest Post by Peter Bartram
The most precarious threat you face as a journalist – aside from not having your expenses signed off – is to be on the receiving end of a libel writ.
Fortunately, in a lengthy career in which I’ve probably annoyed a lot of people, I’ve only had two. After the initial shock, you make a trip to the offices of well-known Fleet Street libel lawyer.
They take a look at what you’ve written and ask a few probing questions. It’s like a practise run for being under cross-examination in the witness box. If they’re happy with your answers, they’ll give a satisfied smile and draft a letter telling the chancer – the plaintiff, if you want to be polite about it – to take a running jump.
At least, that’s what happened with both of mine.
When I got to thinking about the plot for my latest Crampton of the Chronicle book – The Family Tree Mystery – I brought to mind one of the most notorious libel writs ever issued against a newspaper.
This was in the 1960s, the same decade in which the Crampton books are set. It involved the Sunday Mirror, a paper I was to do some freelance work for a few years later.
On 12 July 1964, readers would have picked their Mirrors up off their doormats to read the front-page headline: PEER AND A GANGSTER YARD PROBE.
The juicy tale, by Norman Lucas, the Sunday Mirror’s top crime reporter, described how a leading member of the House of Lords and a much-feared gangster were involved in a homosexual relationship. The flat-foots from Scotland Yard were looking into the matter.
In an attempt to skirt round the libel laws of the time the “prominent peer” was kept anonymous but described as a “household name”. Similarly, the gangster was “a leading thug in the London underworld”.
The true identities of the pair were Lord Boothby, who had once been a political associate of Winston Churchill, and Ronnie Kray, half of the notorious Kray twins. Although the Mirror hadn’t mentioned their names, there were plenty of people who knew who they were. Plenty, too, who could work it out for themselves.
The homosexual allegation was serious because, at the time, gay relationships were illegal and punishable with a lengthy prison sentence. The law didn’t change until 1967. Boothby was placed in a position where he had no alternative but to issue libel proceedings. Kray had more violent means of dealing with people who might come forward to corroborate the Mirror’s story.
The story was true. But when it came to finding witnesses who’d stand up in court and tell what they knew, the Mirror drew a blank. The paper ended up paying Boothby £40,000 in libel damages - £634,679 in 2022 money, a huge sum. The Sunday Mirror’s editor paid with his job.
Years later, the grisly truth emerged. A 2020 book – The Peer and the Gangster by Daniel Smith – tells the story the Mirror never got to print. The tale also provides a backstory in The Family Tree Mystery. It’s not the first time real characters have appeared in a Crampton story. But it’s been fun mixing fact with fiction. I hope you enjoy it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Peter Bartram brings years of experience as a journalist to his Crampton of the Chronicle crime mystery series. His novels are fast-paced and humorous - the action is matched by the laughs.
The books feature a host of colourful characters as befits stories set in Brighton, one of Britain's most trend-setting towns.
You can download Murder in Capital Letters, a free book in the series, for your Kindle from www.colincrampton.com.
Peter began his career as a reporter on a local weekly newspaper before editing newspapers and magazines in London, England and, finally, becoming freelance. He has done most things in journalism from door-stepping for quotes to writing serious editorials. He’s pursued stories in locations as diverse as 700-feet down a coal mine and a courtier’s chambers at Buckingham
Palace. Peter is a member of the Society of Authors and the Crime Writers' Association.
Follow Peter on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/peterbartramauthor.