George Carman QC and his junior Victoria Sharp

Victoria Madeleine Sharp was a media barrister for 30 years and finished up practising in the Temple. Her clients included the Daily Mail. She was a junior to the late George Carman QC – the ‘King of Libel’ and the most famous barrister England has ever known.

The sad reality of George Carman at the Bar was exposed in full by his son Dominic who in 2002 wrote his biography called No Ordinary Man – A Life of George Carman published by Hodder and Stoughton. Dominic Carman had a love hate relationship with his father and clearly wanted revenge on him for what ‘Gorgeous George’ (as he was known) had put him and his mother through over the years. At the age of only seven Dominic took an overdose and later slashed his wrists thanks to his father’s brutish behaviour. The book, even a decade on, makes compulsive reading. George is described by his son variously as a bad keeper of secrets, an inveterate drunk, womaniser, gambling addict (£3 million lost at the tables) and bisexual. George was born in 1929 and brought up in a strict Catholic family and attended St Joseph’s College in Blackpool where: ‘Brutal physical punishment was routine.’ When George got married, son Dominic frequently was sent away following parental arguments: ‘Portraying himself as the innocent victim of a “neurotic wife” his [George’s] control of events was imperious. Policemen were handled with consummate skill. Quickly adopting a cool and menacing tone, George took charge of the situation by putting them in a metaphorical witness box, immediately letting it be known exactly who he was and whom he knew… not wishing to get further involved in a ‘domestic’ with an awkward barrister the enforcers of the law made a strategic withdrawal.’

George Carman QC came down from Manchester in 1980 to live in a flat in Lincoln’s Inn.

Dominic Carman relates that: ‘He [George] acquired a reputation for turning up at court sometimes late and often inebriated. But he never went completely over the edge, knowing somehow just when to stop. An inner steel kept him going’…’Keen to encourage and motivate he adopted an avuncular approach towards young barristers’… and ‘was generally lucky to attract people who were aware of his talent, understood his weaknesses, indulged him with their time and forgave him almost anything’… ’Even more embarrassing was finding him at his Chelsea flat in 1991 with teenage escorts – tall, blonde and on good money. He was unashamed. Again I was introduced as a friend. George it seemed could resist everything except temptation.’

In his chapter the ‘King of Libel’ Dominic says: ‘For reading up on the law, he [George] came increasingly to rely on an excellent spread of juniors. In addition to Adrienne Page and Victoria Sharp, these included Andrew Caldecott, James Price, Heather Rodgers and Hugh Tomlinson. Between them these six provided outstanding support in more than 90 per cent of his libel work.’

What was libel work in practical terms all about? What was Victoria Sharp all about? Says Dominic Carman:

‘In reading the narrative of his libel trials, it is worth remembering that one week George might appear for a newspaper, robustly defending its cause and journalistic integrity against a hostile plaintiff whose frailties would be examined with remorseless Jesuitical scrutiny. The next week he could be acting for another plaintiff suing the same newspaper, which would then be pilloried and vilified for its disgraceful conduct and underhand methods in terms of outrage, horror and disbelief. To the jury, hearing it for the first time, either argument would seem to be delivered with absolute conviction and sincerity. Across all areas of legal practice, only defamation requires such well-managed schizophrenia from the advocate’.

‘During all the moments of drama, tension and surprise in libel, he never deviated from the principal task for which he was employed: advocating his client’s case whatever its inadequacies. The client was always right, and he never forgot that inside or outside the courtroom. In classic tradition, he believed the role of the advocate was to represent fearlessly and with passionate conviction whomever his client happened to be and to put their case across to the best of his ability, while upholding the highest standards of the Bar. The rights and wrongs of the argument were for others to decide. There was only one certainty when he went into court, as Ian Katz wrote in May 1994 for the Washington Post: ‘In the land of libel, George Carman is king.’

At the very beginning of his chapter ‘Damaged Reputations’ Dominic quotes thus:

‘Any woman facing George Carman in court does so at her peril. She must prepare herself for the bloodless abattoir and thence almost inevitably, the bone yard of damaged reputations.’ So warned Jani Allen, the South African journalist, eighteen months after facing George in her action against Channel 4.’

‘Women made George’s reputation in libel. In a series of cases brought by female litigants during a four-year period from February 1990 to January 1994, he achieved several outstanding victories. Even when defeated, damages were often modest. From that period, six of the most prominent trials are examined in this chapter. Each of these featured a sexual element or sexual matters. Where it was not a part of the original libel, George introduced the theme to the courtroom, encouraging widespread coverage in both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers. Dramatic consequences were guaranteed. His methods and language aroused considerable controversy as he conducted himself with a style that was fearless and devastating. As Victoria Sharp explains: ‘He understood women very well. He tested women in exactly the same way as men. Perhaps some women were not used to it’.

I myself came to acquire a fearsome reputation in Norway for tearing down the xenophobic barriers erected by the Norwegian press and their amateurish third-rate journalists. The never-to-be forgotten lesson they learnt from me was that if you attack a person by his religion in the press and do not print his response to their allegations (which in my case all came from a registered Norwegian mental patient) then the simple way for a press victim to retaliate was by way of a target-specific fax and letter campaign followed by a website which is advertised on the newspapers own websites’ unmonitored comment sections. This had never been done in Norway before. The press were enraged. George Carmen would have been proud of me for the 12 years of torment I inflicted on the Norwegian reprobates - with the ensuing press coverage I received from these hate filled racists. I forced the closure of all the mainstream Norwegian newspapers’ free comment blog facilities. One had to register after that and their IT officers vastly improved their internet security. These fools actually expected me to take it on the chin as I had not been named in their newspaper articles, thus minimising the reputational damage. They deliberately called me by my religion and coupled it with the vilest conjecture, ignoring all their own press ethics. If they thought they were going to get away with that then they had another thing coming. I knew it was me they had written about as did others in Norway who knew me. When I retaliated by my own hugely successful information campaign, plus five years down the line with the launch of a website, whereby I had named my accuser (the registered mental patient who had waived her own anonymity by allowing her name and photo to be printed in her press) the police said it was ‘harassment’ to name my accuser even if my information was true (which the court ruled it was) and they prosecuted me for it. This would never happen in England with the sort of press ethics and civil procedures we have here and the stupendous hypocrite Mrs Justice Sharp knows this. But her own religious background and prejudice no doubt got the better of her when she also adopted the antiquated Norwegian model of natural justice – based for example on a total inability to allow me to cross-examine in the Norwegian libel courts to any meaningful degree, let alone the George Carman way so beloved by his former junior Victoria Sharp. Jury trials are not available in Norway; only three judges sit hearing the case. And parliament does not provide the Norwegian courts with the money to allow recordings to be made of civil trials, so no transcript can ever be requisitioned. Any Norway-critical comments are taken very badly.

Mrs Justice Sharp also sits as a Crown Court judge presiding in murder trials. Had a reincarnated George Carmen come before her for historic offences she no doubt would have been obliged to give him a prison sentence for the wife-beatings he inflicted on one or other of his three wives. But at the time of George Carman’s often inexcusable behaviour his retinue kept what they knew of it under their hats - or should I say under their wigs. Regarding his stark exposure of his father, Dominic Carman says: ’From widespread comment that followed publication, the view of some senior barristers was best summarised by Jonathan Sumption QC [now a Supreme Court judge]: “George Carman was not important enough for his personal problems to become public property. There is no need to lie about them, when it is possible to say nothing about them at all.” ‘

In the Preface to his book Dominic Carman states: ‘Should there be a posthumous right of silence that excludes from his biography the debauchery and domestic violence that permeated George’s daily life for more than four decades? Are the private transgressions of a distinguished public figure eternally to be swept under the carpet, simply because he was famous and had a first-class mind? Many argue the case. Former Express and Independent editor Rosie Boycott commented in the BBC2 drama-documentary Get Carman: “George was safe. George was golden. Nobody in Fleet Street would criticise George because they never knew when they would need him.” To how many other public figures does that apply?’

Did Victoria Sharp know that her leader George Carman was a brute in private? People always know a lot more about the home lives of their colleagues than meets the eye: word gets around. But Victoria Sharp kept quiet in any event. Most people in her position would – tolerant of an abuser she could not afford to cross. After George retired in 2000 following a diagnosis of prostate cancer he continued to speak to his juniors. Relates Dominic: ‘Among those on his contact list, Adrienne Page and Victoria Sharp made themselves available whenever he called their chambers or home. Victoria Sharp said: ‘I’m afraid George brought out my mothering instinct… I’ve got four children. He would ring me up at home at about one o’clock on Sunday and say: “I’m not calling at an inconvenient moment am I?” In the end, I spent more time talking to him than to my husband.’

In 1986, after three divorces, the 56 year old George fell in love with ‘his perfect woman’ - the ‘young, attractive, always expensively dressed, tough, strong-willed’ Karen Phillips, a 30 year old barrister, who was to be George’s constant companion until the end of his life. Several times George proposed marriage to her but was always turned down. It seems there was no sexual relationship according to Dominic Carman. But she was frequently seen on George’s arm at special social events where the great and the good were present. She had been a law student at Chelmer Institute of Higher Education in Chelmsford, Essex and graduated in 1979. I was acquainted with her myself. Karen Phillips did very well for herself after qualifying as a barrister. According to Dominic Carman her friends ‘included Julia Morley, who co-ran the Miss World beauty contest, the comedian Russ Abbott and Winnie Forsyth, a former Miss World and the wife of entertainer Bruce Forsyth. The names of well-known people frequently cropped up in her conversation… George and Karen acted together for Elton John’s wife Renate in her divorce from the singer… But although crowded with friends and fixtures, her life lacked the substance of real commitment… From 1980 to 1993, Karen also shared a life with David Green, a wealthy, married businessman, seventeen years her senior, whose main home was in Northamptonshire with his wife and children. He bought her a BMW convertible and a flat in Belsize Park which they jointly owned, where she lived most of the time, while he stayed there a few times each month when in London… Karen and David were to remain an item until his business went into liquidation. She then kept the flat and the BMW.’ Then the wealthy boxing promoter Jarvis Astaire entered Karen’s life. He was six years older than George. Jarvis and Karen became an item ‘following their 1995 Concorde trip together to New York’. Karen still looked after George until he died. Three days before his death he changed his will to give Karen a one-third share in his estate.

Farid El Diwany
Lincoln's Inn