Under the Black Flag

Taking the Mickey

In an English court of law 21 years ago, I had the opportunity to discover firsthand how touchy judges can be when challenged from the dock.  It was a case of libel that caught both the tabloid and broadsheet imagination, not to mention the BBC’s.  I had referred to a very rich old woman as an adventuress, basically a high-class tart, and she had sued the Spectator and yours truly.  We had a lot of fun in court, but, as it turned out, it was very expensive fun.  I had decided to go half and half with the then-proprietor of the most elegantly written and oldest weekly of the English-speaking world.

When I stood to be cross-examined by a barrister who must have been a student of the great Stalin purges of the 30’s, there was a hush in the court.  I had been warned beforehand not to take the mickey, as they say in Blighty.  In other words, play dumb, and no wise cracks.  To make his point stick, my own barrister reminded me of the great Lord Birkenhead’s case, who was giving evidence in a libel trial and had said that the plaintiff was as drunk as a judge.  “You mean drunk as a lord,” spluttered the judge.

“Yes, my lord,” answered Birkenhead.  His side lost.

My counsel also warned me about the infamous Oscar Wilde case.  “Do you deny having champagne with so and so on the tenth of June, Mr. Wilde?”

“No,...

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