The Press Saturday, December 19th 1998

The most perceptive coverage of the Neary case in the Sunday Times appeared two days after Lord Jauncey's judgement, when the paper printed nothing at all on the story after months of Christopher Morgan's  unremitting propaganda against the Dean. This praise is not as faint as it should be. At least it suggests that someone at the Sunday Times had actually read the Jauncey report and noticed what it said; a feat apparently beyond most of the rest of the press, for whom the outcome of the enquiry came as such a shock that it was, so far as possible, ignored, and the story written as if Martin Neary had been exonerated.

In this context, we must be specially grateful to Mark Nicol, of the Evening Standard, whose preliminary report, carried in early editions, told the story exactly as it was meant to happen: there was even a large picture of Martin Neary at the organ, captioned "A creative musician who pursues excellence", and another, smaller one of Dr Carr with the Queen: "She is thought to be the only person who can sack him."

Why should she want to sack him? The story explained: "Over the past eight months Dr Carr has been painted as a dictatorial 'chief executive' transforming Westminster Abbey to the general dismay of those around him, while relying on its 'mediaeval' disciplinary procedure to sweep Dr Neary aside."

Mind you, this explanation came after the confident assertion that "In coming days the pressure on the Queen to act toward ending Dr Carr's tenure will mount as high-ranking Church members and Establishment figures, led by the former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, press for his dismissal." Let's not forget that the campaign against Wesley Carr extended as far as finding his estranged adopted daughter and printing her view of his character.

One might ask why it was necessary to paint the Dean as a dog-collared Pinochet (one of Neary's supporters, when asked to justify his position,  described Dr Carr to me as 'the wickedest man in the Church of England'). The answer, of course, is that it was essential to the Nearys' defence that the charges against them should be mere pecadillos:  as the Evening Standard put it, "Dr Neary was accused of being responsible for minor irregularities concerning small quantities of money in the Abbey choir's accounts."

What Lord Jauncey found was rather different. "For some three and a half years, Dr and Mrs Neary ran a business whose principal earning assets were the lay vicars and choristers. They derived profits form the business in the shape of fixing fees and surpluses on events involving the choir. They did not tell anybody in the Abbey what they were doing. They disclosed to no one there that they and not the Abbey authorities were entering into some contracts on behalf of the choir. .. Dr Neary sought an increase in salary for Mrs Neary without mentioning that she was already receiving substantial sums by way of fixing fees. … They used their position as Organist and Music Department secretary to make secret profit over a prolonged period and they entirely failed to inform the Abbey Authorities of what they were doing, notwithstanding the fact that there were ample opportunities to do so and no good reason for not doing so."

These, it seems to me, are the key sentences in Lord Jauncey's report, rather than his remark that the attempt to sack the Nearys without showing their lawyers the charges against them showed "Gamma minus on the scale of natural justice"

If it had been someone working for me who had done what the Nearys did, I would have sacked them as soon as I found out: I would have felt they had stolen 10,000. Had they excused their actions, as the Nearys did, on the grounds that I should have noticed what was going on, I'd have paused for a moment of speechless goggling and then sacked them twice as hard. Perhaps the Deans of great cathedrals don't think the way I do; but it is at least possible that in this case Dr Carr did. It would have made a refreshing change from the couple's tendency to blame everyone else for their troubles, even, when all else failed, each other: in a little-noticed passage of the report, Lord Jauncey wrote. "In a memorandum submitted by Dr Neary for the Disciplinary Hearing he stated that Mrs Neary had had responsibility for the book-keeping of the company and in respect of her own trading as a fixer. He continued, 'I cannot be held responsible for any mistakes or errors which she may have made'." It was remarkably self-restrained of the judge to comment only, "I am not impressed by this ground".

No doubt Dr Carr and the rest of the chapter should have acted more punctiliously. But that was not the news in the Jauncey report; it was the least that all the newspapers had been saying for months. What was new in the report was that it gave the detailed reasons for sacking the couple. I know it is difficult and skilled work to read a fifty page report in a hurry and then recognise and extract the pith, but that is one of the difficult skills for which reporters are paid. There's no real excuse for spotting the "gamma minus" and missing the rest, as the Independent did.

When the reports came out, both sides had their spin ready. The Dean is terrible at this; the Nearys are brilliant. They even had Frank Field spinning for them, whom I once admired more than almost any other politician. I'm not sure what the moral of this story is. It doesn't appear to be Magnum est veritas, et prevaelabit, except in Steve Smith's translation: "Mighty is truth and will prevail, a bit.".

Perhaps it's only "spin early; spin often; spin Morgan." But when I look at the Nearys extraordinary powers of self-belief and persuasion of others in the teeth of the evidence, it is tempting to conclude that not even the Sunday Times was entirely to blame for the fiasco. Perhaps the best way to avoid a scandal would have been to promote them to share Bill Beaver's job. Never mind what they can do to a choir, there was never a couple like them to get journalists singing from the same hymn sheet.

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