This picture could be entitled “Laughing all the Way to the Bank”.
Like many old hacks, I have done a range of jobs in the Street of Shame. While I was Literary Editor of the Evening Standard, a dream job which could scarcely be described as demanding, my editor, Paul Dacre – a demon-figure for the chattering classes but the kindest and best employer I ever had and certainly the best editor – suggested I cover trials. I sat through every day of several famous ones – including Rose West at Winchester Crown Court and the William Kennedy Smith trial for rape in Palm Beach, Florida. (Kennedy Smith was acquitted, West was sent down for life, both interesting judgements in my view). In some ways the most instructive, however, from a legal point of view, was the trial of Jeffrey Archer for perjury. It emerged that he had lied in court, when suing a newspaper for a story that he had given money to a woman, in a brown paper envelope, who mysteriously died shortly before the perjury case.
He was sent down for four years and served two – 2001-3. The trial was interesting because the Judge, Mr Justice Potts, made it so clear to the jury that perjury really strikes at the heart of the entire legal system. You simply can not have a system of justice which is effective if the word of witnesses and plaintiffs and defendants is unreliable. Hence the significance of their swearing to the truth of their statements on the Holy Bible .
I do not know Jeffrey Archer’s religious beliefs, and it could well be that he thought the Bible was a work of no more significance than one of his own novels. You might have guessed that the wife of an Archbishop of Canterbury would think otherwise, but apparently not.
A former Dean of Canterbury, an old chap called Victor De Waal (father of the charming, and famous potter) has now admitted that he had a fling with Lindy Runcie, while her husband Bob was Archbishop of Canterbury. Why de Waal wants the publicity at the age of 91, we are not in a position to say. His affair with Mrs Runcie was no one’s business but their own, you might say, and how can a gutter journalist like myself justify bringing a private matter such as this to the public notice?
Good question, but I would submit, m’ lud, that it WAS in the public interest if the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of the Mother Church of the Diocese of Canterbury were having a friendship the Dean now deems to have been “inappropriate”. After all, the Church presumes to tell people how they should behave in the bedroom, whether it is admissible for unmarried people to sleep together, whether it is in order to be gay, divorced whaddever.
Rosalind Runcie, when she read a reference to her affair with de Waal in the Daily Star, sued for libel. She won substantial damages which she spent, it was said, doing up the gardens at Lambeth Palace. Some genial old Anglican bishop once said that he always thought of the Ten Commandments as like an exam “seven only need be attempted”. Clearly, Lindy Runcie thought the same, choosing to ignore the injunctions both against committing adultery and bearing false witness. When I think of the , admittedly repellent, Jeffrey Archer doing two years in prison for committing perjury, it seems preposterous that Mrs Runcie, later Lady Runcie, was not banged up for committing the same offence.
Another of my journalistic assignments in days long gone was to write a column for Private Eye about the bishops of the Church of England. My by-line was Lucy Fer. All sorts of disobliging things were written by Lucy Fer about most of the diocesan bishops and some of the smaller fry. I liked a letter, sent to Lucy, by a Jamaican lady who said she was prepared to have ONE of her sons abused by the bishop but when he did it with all three she felt that it was a step too far. Only one bishop, Bath and Wells, sued. He had done a real estate fiddle, and sold a property for grossly under its market value to favour a friend. He also perjured himself, since I knew for absolute fact that the matter over which he complained was true. He settled out of court and got £43,000 which he said he was going to give to charity but , as far as investigation was possible, no evidence was ever found which suggested the money ever left the bishop’s own bank account.
While I was writing my Lucy Fer pieces I often had twinges of conscience, thinking it was rather mean to reveal quite what a shower the bishops were. The story of Rosalind Runcie’s making substantial sums of money out of lying, while holding a Bible in her hands, makes me realize that, as a character says in one of I. Compton Burnett’s novels, cynicism can never go too far.