Prologue: Hatred, Ridicule & Contempt

Thursday 17 October 1991

"We've decided to offer you a partnership."

From the tenth floor boardroom of Thornbury & Summerson, Solicitors, Alex Harris looked out across the central Birmingham skyline at the distinctive angles of the International Convention Centre. He tried hard to hide his feelings from the three members of the management committee on the other side of the table, but it was impossible to repress a grin altogether.

"As you know, you almost made it last year, but we felt you weren't quite ready for it. We put it to the vote again yesterday, and this time it's good news for you.”

Eric Billington paused, awaiting a response. His succession to the role of senior partner of the firm, two years previously, had not until now led to him issuing such an invitation and he was enjoying his moment. To his right, Barry Chatfield, the firm's managing partner, was smiling broadly.

"I'm obviously very flattered," replied Alex, searching for a neutral way of breaking the silence. "Have you offered anybody else one?"

"Yes, we've already invited Hillary Bishop to join us. If you'd been around yesterday afternoon, we'd have called you both in together. She accepted on the spot."

Intrigued, Alex glanced quickly in the direction of Warwick Thornbury, the firm's marketing partner, who had remained both unreadable and silent so far. Thornbury had never been any great fan of women in the law. By contrast, Alex knew for certain that the firm’s only two female partners, Felicity Moore and Rowena Earl, must have campaigned long and hard for his fellow associate Hillary. As if sensing Alex’s interest, Thornbury spoke.

"Yes, it is a great honour for you both. Unlimited liability and no employment rights – hard to know why any solicitor would aspire to a partnership these days."

Alex instinctively found a light hearted response.

"Well, Warwick, I'm sure you're the last person I'd ever suspect of having his hand in the client account, so I think I'll take the risk."

A brief look of surprise flickered across Thornbury's face. But once a loud guffaw from Chatfield cut through the room, the others were not long in following his example. At that moment the door to the boardroom opened, revealing a slightly dishevelled figure. Alex’s head of department entered the room.

"Sorry I’m late. You haven’t told Alex the good news already, have you?"

The committee members exchanged glances, trying to hide their exasperation at his lack of punctuality and scruffy appearance.

“Come in and share Alex’s moment of glory, Stewart. You might even persuade him to buy you a new alarm clock, now that he's going to be joining us."

Stewart Robbins sat down in an empty chair and adjusted his tie. He knew only too well what an effort it had been to persuade Alex not to leave the firm after last year's disappointment. Not that any associates should believe that a partnership at Thornbury & Summerson was theirs by divine right, however much they had impressed the partners on the fee earning side, but he knew that Alex had every reason to feel as if he had been unjustly overlooked on the previous occasion. Would that flickering resentment now be extinguished? Robbins listened as Billington suggested, somewhat unnecessarily, that Alex should think seriously about the implications of it all, waiting for his moment to chip in.

"I've already told Alex that pit bulls need to show their friendly side now and again."

This was the cue for another booming laugh from Chatfield. Alex let the noise subside before finding a response. He had sometimes felt irritated that this nickname seemed to have stuck, but sooner a pit bull than an anteater, he thought, his eyes casually moving across to Thornbury’s unusually long nose.

"Yes, but only when the last ankle's been bitten. Do you mind if I go and reflect in private now? It's quite a lot to take in all at once." The last bout of laughter subsided and the meeting broke up.

Alex felt an overwhelming urge to stare into space for an hour. Seven years at this firm, having joined just after qualifying, and having found out just how greasy the pole was. The historical reputation of the firm as an Oxbridge niche, despite not being based in London, had been one notable factor and Harris had been mindful of the fact that only one other partner - Tony Langham, who had been admitted to the ranks three years previously – had lacked a degree from an Oxford or a Cambridge college. Harris himself had never once regretted his Birmingham University years. Nor the fact that he had evidently achieved his goal, here and now, without compromising his own principles.

He allowed himself a brief moment of private self congratulation before reality descended again as he entered his office. The morning's post basket sat on his desk, the routine tasks of the day waiting to be tackled. The door opened behind him and his secretary entered, holding a telephone message sheet.

"Hi, Serena. All well?"

"Yes, fine. Where've you been?"

Harris paused for a moment and decided that now was not the time to share the secret. He'd always been more willing than most of his colleagues to talk discreetly to his secretary about his active matters and general office business - his idea of mutual teamwork, knowing she could be completely trusted - but this particular bulletin would have to stay under wraps a little longer. Even for Serena Miles. She could be told nearer the time, before the public announcement.

"Upstairs with the management committee. Just some admin issues." Well, almost. Only half a lie, really.

"Rather you than me. Can you call the editor of the Black Country Herald. He says it's urgent."

* * * * *

Wednesday 16 October, 1991

W.A.Holroyd Esq.
Black Country Herald

Dear Sir,

Our Client: John Joseph Donnelly (“Jonjo Donnelly”)

We act for the above named, who has drawn our attention to the news article in the Tuesday 10th September edition of your newspaper, headed "Mystery Surrounds Chaos Of Aid Convoy” and the feature published on Friday 13th September headed “Warsaw Pact Drug Menace”.

The article occupied almost the entire fourth page of the newspaper on that date, and its presence was initially pointed out to readers by the caption "Own goal for Donnelly? - page 4" at the foot of the front page. Within the article, you have purported to report on the recent charity trip to Romania organised by our client.

We take the view that the article and the feature, both together and separately, are grossly defamatory of our client.

In the first place, you have quoted on a highly selective and tendentious basis from a small minority of the volunteers. By way of example: "we were left hanging around in Bucharest for a whole day while Donnelly and his yes-men tried to work out where the first orphanage was - no one seemed to have a proper map"; "we were only trying to communicate with the kids, and all we heard from the organisers was criticism; "It broke up in chaos. I wouldn't be surprised if the overland party ended up in Dracula's Castle."

This is a far from true picture of what took place. We literally cannot understand how your reporter, Vince Tedd, could claim to have spoken to a large number of the group, upon their return to the UK, only to gain an utterly misleading impression of what took place. By contrast, many of the volunteers, both those new to charity missions of this kind and those assisting for the first time, have gone out of their way to inform our client and his office how pleased they were to have played such a rewarding part in this mission.

We are far more concerned, however, by the contents of the subsidiary column at the far right-hand edge of page 4. In relying upon two more baseless quotes from unnamed members of the group, namely: -

"…I’d already suspected that this wasn’t just a charity mission, before I heard it from the horse's mouth";

and: -

"…that truck was almost as full on the way back. I couldn't understand all that secrecy before we hit the road home, but Donnelly just laughed it off and said I wouldn't understand":

your reporter went on to speculate as to why our client was minded to organise a mercy mission to Romania long after the horrors of the Ceausescu regime had been, in his words, consigned to history. He concludes: “there remains an uneasy feeling among the group that there was more to the trip than met the eye." At the foot of that column was a photograph of one of the convoy lorries with the caption: " Mysterious Contents?"

It was only three days later that you ran the full-page documentary style feature “Warsaw Pact Drug Menace” in your Forum section, concerning the increasing availability of illegal hard drugs in areas of the Black Country, and the popularity of overland routes for their importation. The article refers to the popularity of former Eastern Bloc capitals - "particularly Bucharest" - as bases for the activities of Russian criminal gangs involved in drug trafficking. Most significantly, we note that Vince Tedd is named as one of the reporters who contributed to this feature. We understand that he has not previously been involved in features, as opposed to news, on any previous occasion.

It will have been only too clear to any reasonable reader of your newspaper that as a result of the two articles, our client has been associated with the trade in illegal drugs and the activities of drug barons who use Romania as a base for their wrongdoing. It is not out of the question that many of your readers will have concluded that our client arranged a sham mercy mission to assist in the smuggling of drugs into the UK.

Our client is a well known and much respected former professional footballer. His initial career success on the local football scene was soon followed by well deserved fame in the English First Division, and the honour associated with his then club record £1.25 million transfer fee. His brief spell in the soccer elite, including two international appearances, was sadly ended by injury, but this led in turn to new challenges for him in the world of public relations and charity work. The latter has been his overriding concern over the last five years.

It is difficult to express the shock and dismay felt by our client when he was made aware of the article and the feature, and the impact that they will undoubtedly have upon his present activities for national and international charities. If uncorrected, there is little doubt that our client will be, and will continue to be, subjected to hatred, ridicule and contempt.

To protect the interests of our client, we are already arranging for the preparation and service of High Court proceedings. Kindly inform us of the identity of any firm of solicitors authorised to accept service of proceedings on your behalf. We expect that our client would be willing to refrain from taking any further formal step, but only on the basis that: -

1. You agree to publish a full and unreserved apology, in terms to be provided by us, in the newspaper with equal prominence to the offending article, and with an introductory caption at the foot of the front page;

2. You agree to donate a substantial sum of money to a charity or charities of our client’s choice, the sum to be specified by our client;

3. You agree to meet our client’s legal costs in full.

We shall expect a satisfactory substantive response, either directly or via your own solicitors, within seven days, failing which we shall serve proceedings upon you without further notice.

Yours faithfully,

Watts & Watts.

* * * * *

Alex looked away from the letter that had unexpectedly intervened upon the good news of his partnership offer, just over fifteen months previously. He picked up the news article and flicked through its key passages.

“Mystery Surrounds Chaos Of Aid Convoy”

By Vince Tedd

It emerged today that the highly publicised charity mission to Romania organised by the former star footballer Jonjo Donnelly had descended into chaos and confusion almost from the moment that the volunteers set off on the long and arduous overland journey to orphanages said to be housing some of the remaining victims of the Ceausescu regime.

While the leaders and the more high profile members of the party had flown into Bucharest to await the arrival of the donated supplies, the party of students and freelance charity workers who accompanied the lorries as they crossed the Channel bound for Eastern Europe were left to tolerate basic conditions compounded by an attitude towards them that ranged from indifference to outright anger…

…“We’d travelled all that distance, missing our stopovers and having to sleep rough in service stations, and the least we could have expected was some sympathy and encouragement when we arrived”, said a disappointed Debbie Green, a first year history student at Keele University, “especially as we just wanted to crack on with it. But we were left hanging around in Bucharest for the best part of a day while Donnelly and his yes-men tried to work out where the first orphanage was. No one seemed to have a proper map.”

Nor was the evident lack of clear travel directions in Romania the only problem. Although the opportunity to interact with the orphan victims was very much one of the main reasons for some of the volunteers to sign up, this was – to their surprise – actively discouraged. Colin Skipton, a Save The Children gap year volunteer, was particularly upset at what took place on the visit to the orphanage at Dragalina. “We were only trying to communicate with the kids. They seemed so excited to see us. And all we heard from the organisers was criticism. Just because they wanted to drop everything off and leave straight away.”…

…While it is plain that the aid convoy achieved its main objective, namely the delivery of the supplies and equipment to four institutions who had claimed to be in a critical state despite the much publicised efforts of the Romanian authorities to sweep away the horrors of the Ceausescu regime, the conclusion of the mission was no less haphazard. “We’d been under the impression that Donnelly was coming back with us”, said Jim Harding, a Bristol medical student. “We waited another few hours, then we were given a message that he was staying in Bucharest longer and would catch up in Belgium for the channel crossing. It all broke up in chaos. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the overland party had ended up in Dracula’s castle.”

Others went so far as to describe the mission as little more than an ego trip for the former professional footballer who has in recent years played much on the high profile nature of his charity work…

Mr Donnelly has not so far responded to invitations to comment upon these matters.

Putting the article aside, Alex recalled his initial telephone call to Bill Holroyd, the editor, and his meeting that afternoon with an indignant Vince Tedd, the reporter criticised in the letter. This had led in turn, after a further discussion with Holroyd and some carefully worded advice, to Alex’s short but pointed response on behalf of the newspaper: -

"Our clients deny liability. We are instructed to accept service."