“We are all flawed”, replies Angus McBride when asked whether he passes moral judgement on his clients.
He is quick to point out that his observation does not pertain to the newly-reinstated News UK chief Rebekah Brooks, whom he is fresh from defending from claims of phone hacking in ‘the trial of the century’. Instead, he speaks about his time as a criminal legal aid lawyer doing, as he terms it, “proper crime”.
McBride is now ensconced in the partnership of elite criminal firm Kingsley Napley where his clients have ranged from Brooks to John Terry. But it wasn’t always so. After training at media firm Lewis Silkin, which at the time had a legal aid practice in South London’s Peckham, he headed to the West Country, landing in Bristol, near to the site of his first job as a clerk to a sole practitioner in Plymouth where he spent his time representing legal aid clients at police station interviews.
McBride’s nine years in 1990s Bristol saw him work in youth crime and serious crime, defending his clients on charges of rape, robbery and murder. “Some of the work I did was really tough,” he says. “As far as Rebekah was concerned there was no moral judgement to make – she was innocent of all charges. What anybody says about her as a tabloid editor is another matter.
“However there are cases that are horrendous. I can think of a few in Bristol where there were nasty sex offences, and you would not be human if you didn’t have a reaction to it. But even with the most heinous crimes – and you tell yourself this all the time – it is more important to suspend judgement.
“Even in the most awful cases when you sit down with someone in prison and see who they are, it is very rare to meet someone who doesn’t have something going for them, to know there’s a part of them which was not always like this. I tend to look for the human connection and work with it. I find it helps.”
This kind of talk sets McBride apart from some criminal lawyers, keen to limit their connection with their clients to the case file. “I am not saying you get close to clients but you need empathy,” he argues. “When somebody is accused of something it is often the worst thing that has ever happened them, they see their whole life falling apart. It is close to a bereavement: you wake up every morning and it is there.
“It is how you relate to that, how you make them feel – even though you are giving them independent advice – sometimes advice that they don’t want to hear – that they always feel you have their best interests at heart. My approach has always been not to sit at other end of the table but to build a rapport, to gain their trust and then, when the really hard advice needs to be given, they will trust you.”
His time in Bristol came to an end in 1999. Feeling fatigued and frustrated by the limits of legal aid and the burdens of huge caseloads he returned to London. “I had to come to the end of what I thought I could do in legal aid,” he reflects. “I still feel slightly guilty about not doing it. There’s still a sense of that’s what I should be doing – what criminal lawyers should be doing. But I wanted to be back in London, with the types of cases I could do here.”
Made a partner at Kingsley Napley in 2002, McBride began making a name for himself around the turn of the millennium. Not that he had any perception of doing so. “I don’t know how reputation happens,” he says. “Some people go out and make a big noise, which I’ve never done. I guess I got to know the influential lawyers at other firms, got on with them and built my network.”
His first cases were often early investigations, “the types of case that ‘go away’”, and which he is unable to talk about but he recalls allegations made against members of the royal household as one of the first substantial matters he worked on. Former footman and valet George Smith’s allegations that he had been raped by another member of staff, who was in turn in a relationship with the Prince of Wales who protected him, made lurid headlines in 2003 and were the subject of an investigation into the palace which ran for years.
“The press went mad on it,” remembers McBride. “I had not been involved in the middle of a storm like that before, or been instructed by a client involved in that. That was quite formative I think. I learned a lot from it. I learned a lot about the connection between criminal law and media profile. That was certainly not something I’d learned about in Bristol. There you’d get a line in the local paper and that was it.”
This particular press frenzy was the first in a long line that McBride has battled through with clients. He has developed considerable expertise on the subject, writing recently that in Brooks’ case the press around her trial was to such a degree that it violated contempt of court laws.
“It still amazes me that Rebekah Brooks was able to turn up for her trial on the first day and every day thereafter, engage with the process and not entirely break down,” he said to an assembled crowd of journalists last year.
“People have different thresholds,” he muses. “People who are private individuals, as soon as they move into the world of The Mirror and The Mail, go spare. They can’t handle it. People who are used to the press have a much more relaxed attitude. You often have to say to a client: ‘Can you live with this? Because engaging with this person is going to bring up more issues than it solves’.”
Among the private individuals McBride has advised are Kate and Gerry McCann, parents of Madeleine, who was four years old when she was abducted on holiday in Portugal. His involvement began when the pair were named as arguidos, or formal suspects, by the Portuguese authorities and he advised them on how to counteract any criminal allegations put to them and on their already tortuous relationship with the media.
“They were in this difficult place,” McBride surmises. “People were starting to write nasty things about them in the mainstream media. They were hamstrung from bringing libel proceedings straight away because they needed the press’s help with their search for Madeleine.”
“There is always lots of discussion around why two innocent parents attracted so much vitriol. I feel awful for them, not only because of what happened but how they were treated too.”
Chris Langham and child porn
“Seeing how the truth can be twisted into something it’s not is hard,” McBride acknowledges.
He references the 2005 case of actor Chris Langham, found to have viewed child pornography online. Langham maintains to this day that he viewed the material, of which there was a limited amount, in preparation for a role.
In 2011 he admitted to a Guardian journalist, “I knew it was illegal. It was just hubristic and arrogant of me to think I’m above the law because I’m an artist. I thought after [I’d played the character], I’ll reveal I’d researched it, and people would say gosh, you’ve taken this really difficult subject and done something amazing. I’ll do this thing, and everyone will think I’m wonderful. I thought if I pulled it off, everyone would admire me. And I’m a slut for approval.”
Of course, this wasn’t how events turned out. Instead, Langham found himself at Maidstone Crown Court on charges of viewing child pornography and sexual assault on a minor. A woman had come forward at news of his arrest, claiming that the pair had had a relationship when she was 14. Her claim was dismissed as unreliable and she was branded as “troubled” by the court but the damage to Langham’s reputation was done.
“It is terrifying,” says McBride. “Chris was acquitted of the main matter against him but it didn’t even matter: he was condemned. He was a really tough case because I think he was vilified for something he isn’t.”
Langham pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, despite admitting to viewing the pornography, in an attempt to disassociate himself from paedophilia. Although the judge in the case stated that he believed paedophilia “was not an issue” in Langham’s case he was guilty in the eyes of the law and was found so by the jury. He served two months of a six-month sentence.
“It was an incredibly aggressive prosecution,” McBride says. “The police were just…”. He tails off, thinking of the police officer who told reporters outside the court, “I am satisfied that he is a paedophile”, while the trial was in session inside.
“Chris is a really good example of that mob mentality,” he resumes. “People can’t see the grey area and the police and the judge encouraged it. It was very hard, I like him a lot. He is an interesting, clever, sensitive, analytical individual. He’s one of the good guys. But he got hammered so hard for that, in a way that I thought was so unfair.
“I learned about how the media works and started to think more about how to run cases, how to play high-profile cases externally.”
Ironically, one of the papers which went after Langham so doggedly – sample headline: ‘Fury at return of paedo Langham’ – was The Sun, at the time under the tenure of Rebekah Brooks.
Back to work
While a convicted Langham took the best part of a decade to return to work, Brooks was reinstated just one year after her acquittal, to the outrage of many.
“She was acquitted,” McBride says measuredly. “She is highly talented and should be working at the top level. There is still a lot of nonsense being written about her. There are some who campaigned against her that have reacted to her acquittal and re-employment with grace and some who just continue with their agenda whatever the truth. I believe history will judge her more kindly than many do now.”
He terms her trial “an interesting experience” due to her total understanding of how the media functions.
”The way she was condemned didn’t take me by surprise because I could see the factors which led to it but I certainly worried during the course of her trial,” he says.
“The sense of perspective was lost. The prosecution were at times so out to get her that they missed things. That’s another reason why you can’t get too close to clients – you miss the difficult areas and don’t investigate it properly.
“The same thing goes for the prosecution. If you think someone is guilty and you’re out to get them, then you will make the kind of mistakes the prosecution made throughout the trial. There were so many things that were put to the jury that by the end were demonstrably wrong, despite all that resource.”
Journalist and author Peter Jukes attended Brooks’ trial. After she was acquitted he noted in The New Statesman that “the ‘witch hunt’ theme was first introduced by Brooks herself… her lawyers at Kingsley Napley [later used] the metaphor to explain why Brooks could not expect a fair trial.”
He added: “The theme reached its apotheosis in the closing address by [counsel for the defence Jonathan] Laidlaw in June… Every week, before the jury came in, he would arrive in court with ring binders filled with ‘prejudicial press coverage’. It was the product of a media environment that his client did so much to shape.”
Does McBride find it fitting that that as a tabloid editor Brooks played a large part in creating the ‘media frenzy’ culture that very nearly led to her own ruin?
“The ironies were never lost on me,” he replies delicately.
Angus McBride CV
1989-1991, Lewis Silkin, trainee solicitor
1991-1999, Douglas & Partners, solicitor
1999-2002, Kingsley Napley, solicitor
2002-present, Kingsley Napley, partner
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