The Profumo scandal has been so well picked over, a book that adds to our understanding is a surprise – but that is exactly what it does.

Biteback Publishing

That Stephen Ward, the osteopath at the centre of the 1963 Profumo scandal, was simultaneously dumped on from a great height by the Macmillan government, and abandoned by his well-connected friends, is well known. The home secretary of the day, Sir Henry Brooke, determined to, in effect ‘get Ward’, and summoned the head of MI5 and the Police Commissioner to a meeting to demand it be made to happen.

After this Ward’s telephone was bugged and his consulting rooms and home placed under 24-hour surveillance. Dozens of prostitutes were rounded up and put under pressure to say bad things about Ward – Christine Keeler was interviewed a staggering 24 times in the attempt to get something on Ward.

The episode has been so well picked over through the last 50 years, a book that adds to our understanding is a surprise – but that is exactly what human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson’s short work Stephen Ward was innocent, OK: the case for overturning his conviction achieves. This was a shocking miscarriage of justice, Robertson concludes.

Robertson’s focus is the legal process, and it emerges rather badly from the book – judges and prosecution counsel who are rattled, partial and vindictive. They are, by this account, anything but impervious to the moral panic the Profumo scandal caused, coming as it did after the full scale of Kim Philby’s treachery emerged, and the failed prosecution of Penguin books for obscenity (the Chatterley trial).

Ward was convicted of living off immoral earnings – the contention being that Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies were prostitutes who paid some of their earnings to Ward.

Robertson looks at contemporaneous definitions of prostitution – which tended to turn on a woman being ‘arbitrarily available for sex to those who would pay for it’. He also shows that the definition of living ‘on the earnings of prostitution’ was unusually stretched by the judge to include very small amounts of money – a little rent, contributions to telephone bills, and so on.  

Most shocking of all though is the lengths to which the chief justice, presiding in the Court of Appeal, went to to ensure that news of Keeler’s perjury in a related case was not related to the Old Bailey jury. Mervyn Griffiths-Jones QC – then recently bested by the defence in the Chatterley trial – reassured the jury that they need not be worried by the Court of Appeal case’s relationship to Ward’s trial, as any mistakes could be sorted out by the Court of Appeal later (an unconventional view).

Ward’s trial judge, Mr Justice Marshall, gave directions to the jury that were also strange – practically directing a guilty verdict, and with an air or urgency.

Marshall gives no ‘corroboration’ warning to the jury. He departs from the definition of ‘good character’ on the grounds that, though never previously in trouble with the law, Ward had admitted to ‘immorality’ (for which read sexual promiscuity), and that friends could not be found to speak for his good character. ‘… this is clear,’ Marshall J said. ‘If Stephen Ward was telling the truth in the witness box there are in this city many witnesses of high estate and low who could have come and testified in support of his evidence.’

When, after Marshall’s closing remarks, Ward returned to the flat where he was staying and attempted suicide (he died three days later, having not regained consciousness), both prosecution and defence suggested an adjournment – but Marshall disagreed, pushing on to finish summations and to send the jury out.

All of which happened in open court. So it is even stranger that the court transcript remains ‘withheld’, as were the papers for Lord Denning’s inquiry, conducted for the government. Robertson judges that the Criminal Cases Review Commission has the power to demand the transcript be produced, and he closes with a letter to the CCRC setting out the grounds for a reference to the Court of Appeal.

The law student whose flat Ward had been staying in was so traumatised by this formative experience of ‘justice’ that he never practised.

It is, Robertson argues, even at this distance, in all our interests to have Ward’s conviction quashed. Ward’s prosecution was not simply what was ‘done’ in 1963, but was highly unusual, and against my expectations before picking this book, I agree with Robertson - this old injustice should not stand.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor