Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2002

What were the more liberal Christians thinking at the time of the Gay News trial? Neil Richardson, a longstanding member of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, sat through each day of the trial. Here, in a special article for G&LH, he looks back, and, like many liberal observers, is not impressed by the performance of Judge Alan King-Hamilton.

Judge Dread

by Neil Richardson

The summer of 1977 is etched in my memory for the three weeks I took off from work at my new appointment to a parish in Oldham to spend time as an adviser to the defence team at the trial of Gay News Ltd and Denis Lemon, the paper’s editor, for blasphemous libel. These words are written after I had revisited my original contemporaneous notes.

As I got the feel of the Old Bailey, I sensed that this was going to be the nearest thing to a show trial that the system could muster. This strong feeling was caused by a number of factors. First, this was a private prosecution. The official sources had declined to bring a case, knowing the poor track record of literary trials. But then, we heard that Judge Alan King-Hamilton had especially asked to preside at this trial. This puzzled me. Why would a prominent Jewish judge want to preside at a blasphemy trial, knowing that the law protected only the tenets of the Church of England, and aware that the subject matter concerned a poem about Jesus Christ?

Judge King-Hamilton went on record in the Observer on the day before the trial opened as being of the opinion that homosexuality was the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire (Observer, 3 July 1977). The personality and views of Judge King-Hamilton were central to the trial and were not unbiased. The odd thing was that Mrs King-Hamilton spent a lot of time in court, sitting close by Mary Whitehouse, and frequently exchanged whispers with her.

Judge King-Hamilton made his own views clear from the outset. He actually apologised to the jury for having to ask them even to read the poem. He ingratiated himself with the jury, being very solicitous about their comfort, the room temperature, the availability of coffee, and frequently smiled at them. He was constantly slipping in his own views and prejudices and obvious detestation of the poem in question, thus associating his high office with the prosecution side of the trial.

The first four days of the trial were spent in legal argument and submissions. At the end of this phase, King-Hamilton ruled that

  1. the intentions of the poet or publisher were irrelevant;

  2. the prosecution did not have to prove that there had been an attack on the Christian religion;

  3. sympathetic treatment of the poem by literary experts or theologians would be inadmissible;

  4. blasphemy was defined as anything in scurrilous language that would upset an ordinary Christian sympathiser and so tended towards a breach of the peace;

  5. Breach of the peace was defined as the arousal of angry feelings that, if circumstances permitted, would make a man “worthy of the name of a man go out and thrash the offender, or punch him on the nose”.

Having spent four days wrangling about the meaning of the law in the absence of the jury, the judge then blithely informed the jury that their task was an easy one and the law quite a simple matter. The ground had been laid for a conviction.

When in discussion of the details of the poem, Judge King-Hamilton used strong leading tactics. He pointed out certain lines in the poem, and then described them as “the ultimate profanity” ... adding, after some considerable pause, “you may think” in a tone that sounded more like a direction than a suggestion.

Judge King-Hamilton punctuated the trial with trivial comments. At one point, after a tense series of questions, he announced the latest England Test cricket scores. At another point, after some turgid prosecution questioning of Denis Lemon, he airily interjected with the phrase “the answer’s a lemon!” He looked around the court for signs of appreciation of his humour.

At one point, another judge, the Recorder of London, suddenly appeared in court, sat next to the judge and stared around at the court scene. This trial was attracting tourists, and not only in the public gallery. Judge King-Hamilton also intervened in the course of the defence presentations, often making rude, even scathing, remarks to Geoffrey Robertson, then an up-and-coming, brilliant young lawyer, although I have to say that he was obsequious to a fault towards John Mortimer QC. The jury were not blind to this performance from the judge. It was in his summing-up, in particular, that Judge King-Hamilton spoke to the jury in such a manner as to be giving the impression that he was almost advising them that all right-minded people would want to convict.

During the trial, the defence team had considered putting me in the witness box. I am grateful to this day that they did not ask me. I saw Bernard Levin and Margaret Drabble both subjected to vile performances by the prosecutor John Smyth. I think I would have collapsed under such pressure. Smyth used an old tactic. He simply equated homosexuality with paedophilia and asked the witness to defend child abuse. It was, of course, not the issue, but Judge King-Hamilton didn’t intervene to stop this line of questioning, as he should have done. This smear, which has always dogged same-sex relationships, was going to stick yet again.

I was very impressed by Geoffrey Robertson’s performance. He had a difficult enough job, but to do it under constant bullying from the judge was very uncomfortable and he showed great courage. At one point, John Mortimer reminded the jury that he was defending not a poem, nor a newspaper, nor an idea, but a person. In fact, Mortimer was hitting the nail on the head. This trial had all the marks of hatred in it, a hatred that was palpably directed towards Denis Lemon, who was clearly suffering in his isolation in the dock.

When the jury went out, most people expected a swift return. In fact, the jury deliberated for five hours and could reach only a majority verdict. Clearly, one or two members of the jury had the courage and the perception to see through Judge King-Hamilton’s performance and look at the real situation. Sadly, the verdict was guilty and I was shocked to hear the custodial sentence for Denis Lemon, although relieved that Judge King-Hamilton had enough good sense and compassion to suspend it for nine months. I was pleased when the Appeal Court quashed the custodial sentence. After all, we do live in a civilised society, don’t we?

Finally, that poem! I read it again recently. It is a sexual fantasy about Jesus. Not the first and not the last. It is powerful and moving, but painfully graphic and leaves nothing to the imagination. Twenty-five years on, I find it simply unacceptable as an expression of Christian love.

But I guess that James Kirkup never expected it to be read as such.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-09-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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