Murder and mystery but no cover upThu 22 Feb
BLOOD ON THE PAGE: A Murder, a Secret Trial, a Search for the Truth by THOMAS HARDING. London: William Heinemann, 2018
“I wanted to know who killed my neighbour.”
Thomas Harding grew up on a highly salubrious street in the leafy suburb of Hampstead. His book is a blow-by-blow account of the investigation into the murder of his neighbour, Alan Chappelow, a wealthy, reclusive 86-year-old. The murder took place in 2006, and the subsequent conviction of a Chinese dissident named Wang Yam after a court case that was heard in camera, raised Harding’s eyebrows. Yam had moved to London from China in 1992. In 2017 Chappelow’s house went on the market for over £14 million. The facts suggest that money was the motive for the murder. Harding knew Chappelow by sight as a child and yet his proximity to the victim of the case did nothing to open the doors that were closed to the press and to the public. The all-important element to Harding’s story is the fact that this was the first murder trial in modern British history to be held partly in secret.
As well as this central mystery, there were some bizarre aspects to the murder. Chappelow was found by a sniffer dog buried under five feet of paper and manuscripts three days after the police had entered the house. He had been bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument and his chest was covered in wax. No forensic evidence was found linking Wang Yam to Chappelow’s murder: no DNA or blood traces, either in Chappelow’s house or in Yam’s flat a few streets away. The police were unable to find any witnesses to Yam having been in the house. All the evidence against him was circumstantial; he had been using Chappelow’s credit cards and had left the country for Switzerland the day after the police discovered the body.
These and other possibly anomalous facts, plus extensive telephone conversations with Yam in prison, persuaded Harding that there had been a miscarriage of justice. The problem with Harding’s thesis is that these scant facts have no clear connection to the parts of the trial that were conducted behind closed doors.
The reason given for the secrecy was that the case involved issues of “national security”. Jacqui Smith, then Home Secretary, had signed a Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificate to prevent certain evidence from being made public on the grounds that if it were disclosed it would be damaging to the “public interest”, which effectively means to “national security”. No one has ever been able to say precisely what national security is and what constitutes damage to it. Harding gives examples of where it is undoubtedly at risk, but these are almost always in wartime and involve quite concrete facts such as the disclosure of design details for a submarine (as in the first use of PII certification during World War II). On the other hand, it is not uncommon for governments to misuse the threat to national security as a way of preventing disclosure of their own malpractice, as in Edward Snowden’s and Chelsea Manning’s (formerly Bradley Manning) leaking of highly sensitive classified material.
On 28th January 28th 2008, the first day of the Chappelow trial, two human rights lawyers in a Newsnight discussion on TV suggested there was a possibility that the threat to national security was not genuine. No one on the programme treated this suggestion as particularly scurrilous – for the very good reason that there was well documented evidence that the security services had on occasion put pressure on politicians to issue a PII certificate as a way of saving face.
The jury could not come to a majority decision about the murder charge in the first trial held in 2008, so there was a retrial in which Yam was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The day after the second trial ended the Times reported that Yam had been working as a low-level informant for MI6. Eight years later in 2017 Harding made a short film for Newsnight, in which investigative journalist Duncan Campbell was explicit:
The official reason for holding the trial in secret was for national security. The real reason I think was to avoid embarrassment. MI6 were embarrassed that they had been working with someone who was a little bit rackety and as far as they were concerned could possibly be involved in crime and even in murder.
None of this, however, has any bearing on the central premise of Blood on the Page which is that Yam is innocent. For although some of the evidence was presented in camera it wasn’t kept secret from the jury and the lawyers. In this sense, the trial did not properly qualify for that sinister label a “secret trial”. There is no reason to think if the press had been present, the jury would have reached a different decision. As the Guardian reviewer of the book points out, Harding’s problem is that he “he hints at a high-level cover-up [that] doesn’t appear to have anything to do with Chappelow’s murder.”
The real problem with the Chappelow case has to do with the mystification surrounding the secrecy issue. Most of this can be laid at the door of Justice Ouseley who presided over both trials. At the pre-trial hearing two weeks before the first trial, the judge announced it would be partly held in camera. One of the defence lawyers pointed out that many trials in the past which involved security issues had been held in open court. To protect their identity, witnesses had given their evidence from behind screens. Justice Ouseley dismissed this argument. To some extent, it is clear his hand was forced. The prosecution lawyer threatened to drop the charges if the case was not partly secret and also invoked the PII order which Jacqui Smith had signed. The effect of these considerations was to suggest that this was no ordinary secret, but a secret so sensitive, so toxic, that any discussion represented a threat to the nation’s security. The judge then deepened the fog by invoking the Contempt of Court regulations. As Harding describes it:
In a separate order, which was handed out to the members of the media, the judge said that not only were they to be excluded from the in camera portions of the trial, but they were forbidden from speculating why the trial was being held in secret. He added that any speculation would amount to contempt of court punishable by a fine, and possibly even a prison sentence.
In fact, this account is misleading. You can check the text of the judge’s ‘press restriction order’ on the website for the book, www.bloodonthepage.com, under the Legal tab. There are two parts to it. First he warns the press against “revealing the grounds or reasons for making of the order”. Second, he reminds media outlets that “speculating what was or may have been said in camera may be an attempted contempt” (with a sentence of up to two years in prison).
But “revealing” is not the same as “speculating”, and the warning was unnecessary. If the super-sensitive, super-toxic threat to national security really existed no journalist would take the risk of revealing it. Journalists had already been told why some parts of the trial were in camera so if the court was to be believed there was no room for speculation.
More significant still, Harding seems confused by a serious ambiguity built into the judge’s court order: one type of speculation cannot possibly be construed as contempt of court and that is the speculation that there were no genuine reasons for secrecy. This surely cannot be what Justice Ouseley meant when he warned against “speculation”: if it really were an offence to speculate that the secret did not exist, that would be very alarming. It should not be a crime to raise the possibility that the government is capable of misleading the public. This is something we associate with totalitarian states, not the sort of thing that goes on in Western democracies.
Yet if Harding is to be believed, this is exactly what occurred the day after the Newsnight program in 2008. He writes:
The following day in court, the BBC received word that they had trodden dangerously close to contempt of Justice Ouseley’s restrictions. The judge had sent a clear message to journalists: follow my rules or suffer the consequences.
This begs all sorts of crucial questions which Harding fails to address. Did the Judge mention the BBC by name? In what way was the BBC dangerously close to contempt of court (surely you are either in contempt of court or you are not)? What were the rules the BBC is supposed to have infringed?
More of the same muddle occurs with Harding’s response to a letter from the Attorney General. In his Epilogue, he writes:
according to the letter of the law, I cannot repeat articles, testimonies, emails, or other reports already in the public domain for fear of triggering a contempt of court ruling from the judge. Indeed, the government is so anxious that I don’t contravene the judge’s order, that the Attorney General for England and Wales sent a letter to my home address with a warning: we know what you are doing, watch out.
Some of this is plainly untrue, perhaps out of fear-driven paranoia induced by the judge’s press restrictions. There is quite a lot of material Harding is allowed to repeat, some of it provided by the courts themselves. In a video of the Supreme Court hearing of the appeal case in 2014, also on the Blood on the Page website, Lord Mance tells us what Wang Yam’s line of defence was:
The appellant denied the murder charge and alleged that he had been given the deceased’s cheques, credit cards, and banking information, to use by named gangsters and was playing along with them as a means of assembling evidence against them and reporting them.
Lord Mance later points out:
The in camera material formed part of the appellant’s own defence and was seen by him and his legal representatives. The suggestion that its publication would have advanced his defence has been rejected as implausible.
Nothing in Justice Ouseley’s original court order prevented Harding mentioning material already in the public domain. If it’s true that the Attorney General warned him not to mention material of this kind, we should be told what the authority for this prohibition was. At the very least, Harding should have published the letter he received from the Attorney General.
One of the puffs for Thomas Harding’s true crime book hails it as “an In Cold Blood for our time”; the chief investigating officer of the murder characterizes it as a “real whodunnit”; and the book’s subtitle calls it “a search for the truth”. All three descriptions turn out to be some way off the mark. Harding is perfectly sincere in his quest to uncover the truth of the murder, but he succeeds only in creating more murkiness and confusion. The true story is probably much as the prosecution presented it. In a fictional whodunnit the pleasure comes from discovering who did it and why. With Harding we are left in a state of frustration and uncertainty, not so much about the murder itself as about the issue of secrecy. It is hard not to conclude Harding has been bamboozled and intimidated by threats of contempt of court. By going along with the confusions created by Ouseley’s court order he has in fact done truth a disservice.
Review by Simon Beesley.