Today
Mon 6 December 2021

From getting arrested in Sark to being sued in France, John Sweeney gives his personal account of his litigious past with the now-deceased newspaper proprietor

Twin, philanthropist, British and papal knight, rags-to-riches billionaire, patriot, bosom pal of Mrs Thatcher, the newspaper proprietor who never intervened. Sir David Barclay emerges from his obituaries in the organs he owned – the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator – as whiter than white, goodlier than good, holier than thou.

But the hard evidence suggests that his approved obituaries could be better viewed as photographic negatives so that the first line of this article could start: “Twin, tax cheat, influence-pedlar, hypocrite, stinking mobster” – the last soubriquet fashioned from a phrase by a former editor of the Daily Telegraph itself. 

Sir David ran a “regime like Germany in the 1930s”, a “Stalin-like dictatorship”, had “a lust for power”, had “no compassion or sense of shame”, was “an intensely disliked and unpleasant man” and “a liar, a bully and a thug… boarish, oafish, a disgrace to journalism, pursuing a twisted and warped agenda”

Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I got that bit wrong. The quotes above are typical of what Sir David’s agents, absurdly aggressive claimant law firms and his slavishly loyal man on the Channel Island tax haven of Sark, Kevin Delaney, said about people who were critical of him. For the record, all the stuff from “a liar, a bully and a thug…” is about me because I offended him mightily in life.  

Sir David and his twin Sir Fred owned newspapers that pried into the lives of others but hated scrutiny of themselves. They threatened, sued, or threatened to sue so often that it gave me no pleasure to discover last February that Sir Frederick and his daughter were suing Sir Dave’s three sons over “commercial espionage on a vast scale”.

Sir David’s youngest son, Alastair, was caught red-handed bugging Sir Fred at the hotel they used to own, The Ritz. The spying operation against Sir Fred captured 1,000 conversations in 94 hours of recordings over several months. Sir Fred supplied a video showing Alastair bugging the area in The Ritz where Sir Fred commonly sat and made business calls. 

“The decision to release this video of this deliberate and premeditated invasion of my privacy is in the public interest,” said Sir Fred in a vanishingly rare public statement. “I do not want anyone else to go through the awful experience of having their personal and private conversations listened to by scores of strangers.”


The Ritz Spying Scandal

Sir Fred’s lawsuit has made many observers, including me, change the way they have regarded the twins. Before the suit, they seemed to be two bodies but one soul: now it appears that the savage attacks on critics and the fear many had of being spied on was down to Sir David, not Sir Fred. 

In May 2020, a court heard claims that Quest, the private dick outfit chaired by the former Met Police Commissioner Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington – “widely acknowledged as the most respected police officer of modern times” according to the private dicks’ website – had billed 405 hours for transcribing 2,800 pages of “conversations with lawyers, bankers and business people”. Sir David’s sons called the product “podcasts” and shared it via a WhatsApp group. The case continues

The Information Commissioner’s Office has been asked to look into the bugging and the role of the private dicks led by the copper “widely acknowledged” etc. 

The oldest and most powerful of Sir David’s sons who spied on his uncle was Aidan “Keyhole Kate” Barclay, the effective capo dei capi of the Telegraph and Spectator empires. Aidan Barclay told the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics that “a free press is fundamental to the proper functioning of a democratic society and it’s necessary to scrutinise those in positions of influence and power and to report in the public interest”. But Sir Fred suggests those words are hollow. 

Pursuing his suit, Sir Fred noted “the strict rules of the editors’ code” prohibited the procurement or publication of material acquired with hidden cameras or listening devices, adding: “I believe it is very much in the public interest for people – and in particular readers of the Daily Telegraph – to understand that a newspaper proprietor is not abiding by the editor’s code.” Sir Fred said that, for the code to have any effect on journalists’ conduct, it “should be upheld by those at the very top of an organisation”.

That is: someone very much like “Keyhole Kate” Aidan Barclay. But he isn’t the only media figure embarrassed by the spying scandal at The Ritz. Andrew Neil has been the chairman of the Spectator Group for many years but never found editorial space to look at Sir David’s grossly hypocritical hatred of scrutiny. Neil, who used to improve my copy when I was a tea boy at The Economist in the late 1970s and was an excellent interviewer at the BBC, is now running the not-yet-launched TV outlet GB News – where one hopes there may be some scrutiny of the motives animating the wealthy benefactors behind that enterprise. 

Another victim of The Ritz spying scandal is the current editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, whose omerta on his hypocritical proprietor is a stain on his record. The same charge stands against former Telegraph and Spectator editor Lord Snooty, sorry, Lord Charles Moore, Baron of Etchingham, who was touted to be the next chairman of the BBC. Last autumn for Byline Times I sent him an email setting out the spy scandal and the Twins’ long record of aggressive, indeed paranoid, reaction to scrutiny. 

My email pointed out how in 1996 the Twins sued me lots in Britain and France – I will return to that shortly. In 2005, the Twins sued The Times and its editor for criminal libel in France over a report about their business and profits in the UK under the 1881 French law of Droit De Réponse and the French law of press libel on a private individual. The Twins’ suit did not prosper. 

(Not in my email to Lord Moore, but Sir David Barclay also unsuccessfully sued French playwright Hédi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre for defamation and invasion of privacy after the French author wrote a play about figures similar to him and his twin). 

My email to Lord Charles Moore cited Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Telegraph, in which he said: “After a lot of agony I have come to the conclusion that I have a duty to make all this public. There are two powerful reasons. The first concerns the future of the Telegraph under the Barclay Brothers.” 

In 1993, the Twins bought Brecqhou, an islet off the Channel Island of Sark, to avoid tax. They built a naff castle and fell out with their neighbours. My email to Lord Charles Moore noted that people on Sark say that the Twins have funded and otherwise supported sustained attacks on those residents and their local government, Chief Pleas, who venture to disagree with the Twins. Critics of the Twins on Sark say that they have been spied on. 

My email continued that Citizens Advice said that their company, Littlewoods, has been the subject of multiple complaints for harsh loan repayment terms. I added that in 2012 I reported on their tax arrangements, ‘The Tax Cheat Twins’, for BBC’s Panorama but that if you dial in Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay into The Spectator‘s search engine, you get nothing. 

My email to Moore concluded: “As a former editor of the magazine and current contributor, your decades of fealty to your proprietors is noted. But the Chairman of the BBC is a public office. With this track record of silence towards the Twins’ controversial conduct how can you claim to defend the public good? How can you guarantee independent journalism and broadcasting with regard to anything directly or indirectly connected with the Barclay Twins?” 

Shortly after my email was sent, Lord Moore announced that he would withdraw from consideration in the race for BBC chairman. (BBC management have yet to thank me for this service. KJV- Luke 15:7-10.

I was born in Jersey and my dad was an insurance engineer for the Channel Islands in the 50s, Sark too, so when I learnt that folk on the island were being bullied by two weirdo twins with a ton of money I started digging. The word was the Twins were Cockney Scottish, poor, had made a lot of money out of the property boom in London in the 1960s, took the Crown Agents for a ride, tanked but survived, then kept on making money.

People didn’t like they way they operated, said they had a manner that seemed more criminal than consensual. I should point out that the rumour mill whisperings that the Twins had had their brushes with organised crime was never substantiated. Nevertheless, the fear they generated was striking. 

One ex-Daily Telegraph editor and a former Tory Cabinet minister who studied the twins was one of my great journalist heroes, the late Bill Deedes. Back in 1936, Bill arrived in Addis Ababa aged 22 with 600 pounds of luggage for the second Italo-Abyssinia War and became the template for William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. (By the way, the Africans loved Bill because he poked Mussolini’s fascists in the eye with a stick). In the 1980s I turned up late and a bit pissed for some awards bash where Bill was handing out the gong and I was the winner. He scolded me in the sweetest possible way and we hit it off. I remember a Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth under Mrs Thatcher when a demo climaxed with some crazy lefty climbing a lamp-post and started rocking it violently while Bill shouted “Rah-Rah!” in delight so loudly that I had to use my 17 stones to block a copper from nicking Bill. 

The point of the story? When the Twins took over Bill’s beloved Daily Telegraph he called them “this stinking mob” and therefore it follows, as night day, that Bill’s view of Sir David was that he was a stinking mobster.


Tax Havens

In the mid-90s, I presented The Spin, a late-night BBC2 show about the media which lasted three episodes before it was axed – perhaps for causing too much trouble. To a James Bond soundtrack, I travelled to the Twins’ islet of Brecqhou on board a little boat, landed and got arrested by the Twins’ security.

The BBC broadcast The Spin’s report on the Twins and I wrote a piece about them for The Observer, then went on Radio Guernsey’s ‘Good Morning Lobsterpot’ show to talk about the strange disconnect between the Twins owning media brands, including a company that owned a part-share of the National Enquirer, which has always specialised in printing the sad sexual indignities of the poor, the stupid and the unconnected. But I got the words wrong and I made a mistake. 

The Twins threatened to sue the Observer and I in Britain and France for criminal and civil libel and the Observer started grovelling, me too. The BBC’s then Director-General, John Birt, and I were prosecuted for criminal libel in France because the remarks I had made on Good Morning Lobsterpot had been picked up in France. 

At the first trial in St Malo, the defendant before me, a car thief, was dragged away by the flics in chains. Birt was a no-show but I pleaded not guilty, told the French judges that the Twins, because of their links to the Enquirer, were hypocrites and I quoted Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army in my schoolboy French: “Ils le n’aiment pas en haute” – “They don’t like it up ‘em”. The judges ruled not guilty. The Twins appealed to a higher court in Rennes and we lost, the BBC paying the 20,000 Franc fine, roughly £2,000 at the time. 

In the 2012 Panorama ‘The Tax Haven Twins’, I reported how they had somehow avoided corporation tax bill on The Ritz for 17 years and were acting horribly against their neighbours on Sark. Decent people were accused by Kevin Delaney, effectively their man on Sark, in the Sark Newsletter, a nasty, aggressive paper that attacked anyone who the Twins didn’t like. 

For example, Sark’s postmistress had put up a clipping from Private Eye mocking the Twins on the bulletin board at her post office. She received a letter from the Twins’ lawyers, threatening a libel suit unless she grovelled. Delaney’s Newsletter ran a front-page story accusing her of spying on the islanders’ mail and saying that she was unfit to run the post office and her fiancé was described as a “foul-mouthed bully and drunk”. Delaney went on to compare Sark with “Franco’s fascist Spain and Hitler’s Germany”. The Newsletter’s tone, the Twins contended, “is proportionate to the importance of the reforms and the intransigence of the feudal establishment”.

A lawyer on Sark, Paul Arditti, explained that Sarkees were afraid to fight back because Delaney could call on the Twins’ money to ruin them. For example, the Twins sought to shut down the bar in the island’s leisure centre and sued the trustees jointly and severally. If they lost they could have been charged £200,000 each. The Twins lost, but the stress on people was extreme.

While our Panorama team was on Sark, we were spied on. Delaney accused me of falling off my bike when cycling back from the pub – guilty – and lots of nonsense. The nastiest false allegation was that I had urinated over a baby in broad daylight. A BBC internal inquiry cleared me of that and everything Delaney accused me of. 


Bootlicking

The memory of the pain of ordinary decent people on Sark caused by Sir David’s vendetta still lingers.

Sir David’s minion, Kevin Delaney, was especially cruel to the late Seigneur of Sark, Michael Beaumont, accusing this patently decent man of running a regime close to Hitler’s and of being “wilfully negligent” over the care of his ailing wife. The claims were wholly false, as attested by the island’s departing doctor, Dr Peter Counsell on our Panorama.

None of this reporting was easy and our team faced stiff legal opposition, most aggressive of all being Carter-Ruck, the lawyers who also represent the Church of Scientology. George Entwistle, the BBC’s Director-General in 2012, killed the programme but then had to resign over the Jimmy Savile Scandal. His temporary replacement, Tim Davie, did run it. 

Just like Robert Maxwell, Sir David’s bullying largely worked on a fearful and timid Fleet Street. 

Media-savvy folk like Lord Charles Moore, Andrew Neil and current Spectator editor James Forsyth love to scold the BBC for its transgressions but have never once addressed the poison created by their own proprietor or his spying sons.

“Farewell with respect and admiration to Sir David Barclay,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson of his fellow Brexiter and someone who was paid £250,000 a year when writing his column for the Daily Telegraph.

Johnson, Neil, Nelson, Moore didn’t tell truth to power. Instead, they, in never once telling the truth about Sir David Barclay, sadist and hypocrite, licked his boots. 

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