Michael Mansfield QC
The radical lawyer, who has worked on some of Britain's most famous
court cases, briefs Angie Sammons ahead of his appearance in
Liverpool next week
A REPUBLICAN, vegetarian, and socialist, Michael Mansfield QC's
illustrious list of cases and trials reads like a history of the
As well as representing those wrongly convicted of the IRA's
Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings, Mansfield, 69, has represented
Brian Keenan; James Hanratty (in posthumous appeals); those involved
in the Israeli Embassy bombing; Stephen Lawrence's family; Michael
Barrymore at the Stuart Lubbock inquest; Barry George at the inquest
into the death of Jill Dando; the Bloody Sunday families; Arthur
Scargill; Angela Cannings; Fatmir Limaj, a Kosovo-Albanian leader
prosecuted in The Hague; Mohamed al-Fayed in the inquest into the
deaths of his son, Dodi al-Fayed, and Diana, Princess of Wales; and
the family of Jean Charles de Menezes.
What are your feelings on the age of criminal responsibility debate
currently in the news?
Having a cut-off age is arbitrary. I think there has got to be a much
more flexible approach. This applies to almost any age actually,
there are some people of the age of 10 who do have a sense of what is
right and what is wrong, and it seems to be difficult to conceive of
young people, or people of any age, who don't really recognise that
killing, extinguishing life, is something that is abhorrent. And that
goes for treading on a bird right the way through to killing a person.
However it is possible, that some even at a much older age than 10,
some may not have that sensibility because of the conditions in which
they have been brought up. In other words they have been
anaesthetised to violence. I don't want to sound like Mary Whitehouse
- but the media does not help, in terms of preconditioning. In
particular I find the cultural output and I'm thinking of films in
particular contributes to that dulling of the senses.
Entertainment has become thrills and spills and horror, you say?
I am pretty horrified by the level at which it is OK. The example I
use quite a bit is the film Slumdog Millionaire. I speak to all the
people who rave about it and I say "What was the opening sequence?"
and nobody can remember. It was actually of a child being tortured.
It may be like real life but I don't think this is the way you
entertain people with scenes of torture. The idea that this is the
way you shock people into wanting...what? Wanting more of the same or
less of the same, I don't know.
I realise they will say we are only replicating what is going on in
the world, well sure, but on the other hand what we should be trying
to do is overcome that. The more you portray it as acceptable then
that's what it becomes. It's what the Americans are doing now. They
say it's OK to torture, as part of their policy.
So going back to your question, you would have to look on it on a
case by case basis. It depends on the individual. I wouldn't like to
say that somebody of the age of 10 can't, in principle, be held
responsible. Whether you should say it's different at 12, or 11, or
10 or 13, I don't think you should approach it that way.
Last week the Children's Commissioner was talking of raising the
age. You don't think that's appropriate?
I sympathise with why she wants to do it, but to specify an age is a
hostage to fortune.
Do you take any case on, or do you choose or reject cases on a
matter of personal principle?
The short answer is that I don't choose. The selection process is
done at the other end, and of course I can turn stuff down but
normally that would only happen if I was too busy. Obviously there
are cases I would prefer not to do and they don't come to me. Because
those people or cases realise that sympathetically I'm not there. I
don't think a member of the BNP would rush off to hire me.
Or a member of the hunting lobby perhaps.
What are your top three albums of all time?
I'm cheating a bit because my top album is really four volumes. Blue
Note 50th Anniversary Collection, and it's a history of everything I
love in jazz. The next one down is one you will never have heard of
called GRP Super in Concert. It's jazz fusion. Chick Corea, Lee
Ritenour, who as a guitarist I love.
Sting did a fantastic album, All This Time, a live concert in Italy,
which took place on 9/11. I mustn't forget Ella Fitzgerald's
Collected Works either.
What was the first record that you bought?
Benny Goodman's One O'Clock Jump. I was somewhere between nine and
12. He was extraordinarily proficient because he played classical
clarinet before turning his hand to jazz.
I had you down as a jazz man.
Yes, I am a member of the 606 Club, which is the oldest jazz club in
London after Ronnie Scotts.
What was the first live gig that you went to?
You'll laugh at this. As a child/adolescent I never went to gigs. Pop
music didn't feature in my life until much later. So the first one I
went to, which blew me away completely was Pink Floyd's The Wall at
Earls Court in 1980. I knew the drummer because our children were at
school together and he invited me. I saw it three times.
What about non pop?
I used to go to the Proms a lot as a teenager. I would go with
friends who knew far more about classical music than I did and they
would talk me through what I was listening to. refused to go to the
Last Night of the Proms because it seemed to me so jingoistic.
The concert I remember most was the Halle Orchestra in the Potteries
performing Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. All very popular
stuff but their version was simply brilliant. Every time I hear it,
it's shivers up the spine, tears to the eyes stuff. I can't stop
feeling totally emotional.
And so I came to prefer live music to listening to records to be
honest. It has to be live, right there, overwhelming you and embracing you.
And the last concert?
A jazz guitarist called Antonio Fortuoni. at the Edinburgh Music
Festival. I have got to know him and have followed his career since
he arrived in England. He is an extraordinary person.
Did you pay to get in? And if not, why not?
I did. Although I could have got in for nothing, but I said to him,
look, musicians are living on next to nothing anyway.
What tune is running around your head at the moment.
Unforgettable by Nat King Cole. Lots of other people have tried, but
they have never got near his recording of it. And I just avoid all
karaokes where people are doing it. Terrible.
You wouldn't be persuaded to take part in a karaoke then?
No, no. Murderous! I'd have to be well pissed to do it. And even then
I wouldn't. I can't believe people want to do it.
Does music help you to think when you are working?
No, it would interrupt. I would go off on one. It's either there
because it's got something to say to you or it doesn't happen at all.
I don't see it as wallpaper.
You are a lover of lyrics then, rather than merely an absorber of melody?
It's got to be lyrics. That's why I loathe music in supermarkets and
restaurants, trains, planes...for God's sake! What do they think we
are? That we can't live in silence? For five minutes, or hear each
What newspapers/magazines do you read?
A cross section of newspapers, Guardian, Independent and the Times
and Telegraph, particularly the Telegraph which has another take on
things, not that I necessarily agree with it. Red Pepper magazine
which is an independent Left subscription magazine dealing with all
sorts of international issues. And Socialist Lawyer. Occasionally
Time Out and Big Issue and Private Eye for the covers.
What word do you most like the sound of?
Oh lovely. You say it so elegantly as well.
It communicates exactly what it is. The English language is
incredible for many reasons, but foreign languages have words which
have more passion, particularly, the French, Italian and Spanish.
Aficionado...I mean there you go.
Which websites do you visit most often?
None. We are living in a screen culture, I abhor it. Wherever I go,
people are either looking at their mobiles, or laptops. We are fast
approaching a situation where the only way in which we communicate or
learn information is through a screen. If I'm desperate, I can say to
someone, "Can you google me this?" but I do live without it pretty well.
Who or what do you listen to on the radio?
Radio 4. Some of the current affairs programmes are becoming a bit
stale, the usual talking heads. Similarly on television it has become
celebrity driven. I'm getting mildly bored with all that. But comedy
is undoubtedly the thing that keeps me alive. I used to love Humphrey
Lyttleton. Jeremy Hardy is brilliant and political, and Sandi
Toksvig. Anything that those three are on well one of them is dead
I listen to.
Would you have fancied a career as a stand-up comic?
Too difficult. That's why I don't do after dinner speeches. I can
tell stories and build an anecdote, but I don't do jokes.
Addressing a courtroom, particularly in some of the bigger showpiece
hearings you have been involved in, must have presented similar challenges
Yes, it has. But after 40 years, I have now worked out what the
parameters are. I can work humour into it to liven it up, otherwise
it's extremely dull. People go off to sleep. You have to be a Banksy
in the law court situation, bring a bit of street art into it so that
people can see you are being vaguely relevant.
You have six children and they mostly work in music
Yes, aged from 42 down to 22. One for the BBC, another for an
independent record label and so on. They know much more about music than I do.
None of them wanted to follow the old man into the wig and robes then?
Oh God no. I think they respect what I do, but they know it possesses
your life. The law is like that. I hope they haven't, but I feel in a
way they might have paid a bit of a penalty for the fact that I've
been there less. But I told them, I don't care what you do in life,
but you've got to be passionate about it.
Watch much TV?
Not really these days. Every other programme is about cooking. Sophie
Dahl is about to do one. Do we really need another one? Then there
was dancing - strictly, on ice, in wheelchairs. They get something
and they flog it to death. I absolutely loath these shows where you
vote people off all the time.
Top film ever?
Yves Montand in both State of Siege and Z. They are both about
individuals taking on the search for justice. They are in a similar
vein to The Insider, Missing, Erin Brockovich. You can see where I'm
going with this, can't you?
What book in childhood made the biggest impression on you?
The Just William books. I read every single one. He was brilliant.
Maverick, renegade, socks around his ankles. Undermined all the
conventions of middle class England. For me, he was a release from it.
What's your current book at bedtime?
I'm lazy. I listen to Book at Bedtime. Print has become an anathema.
I do so much speed reading at work that it's very difficult to do
leisure reading. Sometimes I go to the end of the book to see where I
am heading. The most recent book was Alan Bennett's The Uncommon
Reader which I thought was brilliant. And short.
Do you go to the theatre and what did you last see?
The Power of Yes at the South Bank. I am also hoping, in Liverpool,
to see my friend Barry Rutter's company Northern Broadsides in The
Canterbury Tales. I have to say that Barry Rutter opened my eyes. I
really didn't like Shakespeare but then when I saw their shows I
suddenly knew what it was all about. So a big thank you to them.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Spike Milligan. A complete genius. There isn't anyone who has the
inventive political humour that he had.
What single work of art do you find the most moving?
The Girl with Pearl Earring. I bought a print, but when I saw the
vibrancy of the original in The Hague, I realised why. I liked the
film with Colin Firth too. It had a pace to it. It encapsulated what
the picture was about. Unusual relationships, oppression, social
difficulties, unexpressed love...Everything was there.
Which public figure (living or dead) do you most admire?
Bertrand Russell because I did a philosophy degree. His History of
Western Philosophy is a masterpiece and I like the fact that he was a
liberal peacemaker. Another dead one is Edward Saeed who was also
concerned with the Middle East and I am very, very angry about Israel
and their treatment of the Palestinians. When I come to Liverpool,
for my Rebel Rant, they do not know what I am going to be talking
about. But I can tell you now that I am afraid it's going to be the
On the living side, the Canadian author Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky.
What is your favourite piece of architecture?
The Millau Viaduct in the Languedoc. It's a huge stretch. Instead of
being overwhelming, it is very delicate. Like a piece of web. I look
forward to seeing it as I come around the corner of a mountain and
when you drive across it it is like flying.
Elephant and Castle Shopping precinct ought to be flattened. I did
the Lawrence Inquiry in there so I know the inside, but the outside
...they keep trying to paint it a different colour thinking that
someone will love it. Town planners don't seem to realise that space
would be a help sometimes. To see wonderful vistas, a bit of sky.
Know any good jokes?
What do you call 200 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?
*A 'Rebel Rant' with Michael Mansfield QC, Thursday March 25, is part
of the Writing on the Wall series of events, at The Arts Centre,
Liverpool Community College, Myrtle Street, Liverpool 7. Tickets
£8/£5 concs from the Philharmonic Hall box office. See here for more