April the High Court handed down a ruling in favour of CAAT and The Corner House, finding that the government had buckled under pressure from a Saudi prince and unlawfully ended the investigation into allegations of corruption surrounding arms deals with Saudi Arabia. Given the landmark status of the Court’s judgment a press conference was held to field the massive media interest, and arriving early before the ruling was made public, the tension and sense of trepidation in the air was tangible.
Having never met a journalist before (never mind attended a press conference) I shared in the mood of nervous excitement as I helped to welcome and register the mixed bag of scruffy ruffians and suit-clad media people that would constitute our audience. Weaving through the throng I overheard a well-known journalist speaking on his mobile phone. He described the Court’s judgement as ‘withering’ and said he’d never heard anything like it. Despite the unassuming look of many, their tardy tendancies and willingness to squash into a room already packed to the rafters, journalists are tough. They often hold a lot of sway in whether and how the public recieves a story, and this press conference would be a crucial chance for CAAT to elucidate a stronger stance for supporters and answer back to critics. Representatives from two dozen media houses attended, reflecting the truly national implications of CAAT’s court case and maximising exposure for an important but oft-overlooked cause.
Heading the press conference were Richard Stein from Leigh-Day and Co solicitors who presented the case in court, Sue Hawley from The Corner House anti-corruption group, and CAAT’s Symon Hill. The discussion began with a statement from Symon, pointing out that this case was about upholding one of the most basic tenets of British law: that Nobody Is Above It. I felt myself beaming with pride as members of the press obediently scribbled down principles that CAAT and its supporters have held for decades; that might is not always right; that justice applies even to the rich and powerful; and that public interests should come before those of BAE systems. Symon explained how BAE had hired spies to thwart CAAT’s legal campaign, and how the government showed hypocrisy in refusing aid to developing countries accused of corruption, whilst thwarting attempts to root it out at home. Sue reiterated the need for an independent judiciary to hold the executive to account and called for the Serious Fraud Office to reopen their inquiry. After this introduction, the floor was opened to questions, and the atmosphere gained a rowdy edge. The press were ready to challenge, using their instincts to rinse out more juice from an already complex and interesting story. Photographers grappled with cameramen and negotiated chairs, clamouring into the best position for headshots of Symon, Sue Richard and the journos asking the meatiest questions.
Sometimes a response was difficult to give in the absence of a crystal ball. It is at this stage uncertain whether a legal challenge to the ruling will be mounted, we do not know whether the Serious Fraud Office will immediately reopen the investigation and the wider implications of today’s magnanimous ruling are unlikely to be quantified for years. Nevertheless, the rule of law has prevailled and the government has been found to have acted in favour of big business and foreign powers, at the British publics’ expense. For CAAT and its supporters, under the shell of triumph and vindication lies something more important; the knowledge that justice and government accountability – the pillars of democracy – have, for a while at least, been granted sovereignty once again.