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Sir Oliver Popplewell obituary
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Sir Oliver Popplewell obituary

Sir Oliver Popplewell, who has died aged 96, was responsible for delivering a demoralising setback to the Guardian. In the libel claim brought by the Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken against the newspaper after it had reported that he had breached parliamentary rules as minister for defence procurement, the high court judge ruled in May 1997 that the case should not go before a jury. The paperwork detailing the politician’s business interests was far too complex, declared Mr Justice Popplewell – agreeing with submissions by Aitken’s lawyers. He would decide the issue himself.

The Guardian’s lawyers, who had retained George Carman for his formidable cross-examination skills and ability to simplify issues for jurors, were dismayed. In his memoir, Benchmark (2003), Popplewell recorded that his “decision was greeted by near hysteria among the Guardian scribblers …”

The newspaper challenged the finding but the court of appeal supported the trial judge. It was a blow the Guardian subsequently overcame by unearthing fresh evidence during the trial that exposed Aitken’s lies about who had paid for his stay at the Ritz hotel in Paris in 1993.

Guardian reporters investigating the story (myself included) managed to find receipts in the basement of a Swiss hotel that set off a paperchase through British Airways’ flight records that proved Aitken’s wife, Lolicia, had not flown to Paris to settle his bill as he had claimed. Consequently it became clear that Aitken had allowed aides of the Saudi royal family to pay. His libel action collapsed.

There had been suspicion initially within the Guardian that Popplewell was an establishment figure whose sympathies might be won over by a fellow public school boy. Aitken’s own memoir, Pride and Perjury (2000), however, reveals that the Tory politician feared the judge had rumbled him early on and disbelieved his deceptive narrative.

Popplewell later said that by the third day of the trial he had realised the former minister was not telling the truth. He described the case as “one of the bitterest and most enthralling libel actions heard in an English court”.

Aitken was subsequently imprisoned for perjury and perverting the course of justice.

Popplewell came to preside over defamation cases late in his judicial career. They brought him some notoriety. He was pilloried as the epitome of an out-of-touch judge when, in a libel case involving allegations of performance-enhancing drugs in sport, he inquired: “What is Linford Christie’s lunchbox?” Popplewell later explained that he had always understood the reference was to the athlete’s manhood but asked the question to ensure the jury knew what was being discussed. Private Eye nonetheless christened him Mr Justice Popplecarrot.

As a high court judge, he also heard the early stages of Neil Hamilton’s attempt to sue the owner of Harrods, Mohamed Al Fayed, for libel in the disputed cash for questions controversy revealed by the Guardian.

Oliver Popplewell in 1996.View image in fullscreen

Popplewell was brought up in Northwood, north-west London, where his nanny cared for him in childhood. His father, Frank, was a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Labour; his mother, Nina (nee Marks), had been a suffragette and was later secretary of the Equal Pay Campaign Committee. Educated at Charterhouse school, in Godalming, Surrey, Popplewell completed two years of national service in the navy “below decks” rather than serving as an officer. He won an exhibition to Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he studied law, graduating in 1951.

He joined the Labour party but his passion was cricket. He played for Cambridge University, as wicketkeeper and batsman. Cricketing connections helped him secure a place as a barrister in chambers near the Royal Courts of Justice. It remained an abiding enthusiasm: he rose to be president of MCC from 1994 to 1996.

In 1975, Popplewell provided a character witness for his godson Stephen Fry, who was then 18, at his trial for credit card fraud. Popplewell and his first wife, Margaret Storey, were friends of Fry’s parents. The comedian and actor later sought refuge at the Popplewells’ cottage in Norfolk after disappearing from his starring role in the West End production of the play Cell Mates in 1995. Fry wrote the foreword to Popplewell’s autobiography, describing him as a man of “intelligence, decency, diligence and public service”.

Popplewell became a QC in 1969, sat as a recorder in the crown court and was appointed a high court judge in 1983. With his interest in sport, he was chosen to chair an inquiry into crowd safety at sports grounds following the 1985 fire at Bradford City football stadium that killed 56 people. He concluded that the blaze was accidental and recommended banning new wooden stadiums. Popplewell initially resisted calls for a fresh inquiry after one of the survivors, Martin Fletcher, published a book linking fires at other premises to the Bradford ground.

Relatives of the Liverpool victims of the Hillsborough stadium tragedy were later infuriated by the former judge when, in a letter to the Times in 2011, Popplewell called on them to drop their “conspiracy theories” and behave with “quiet dignity and great courage” like the citizens of Bradford.

After retiring from the bench, Popplewell embarked on a second academic career at the age of 76 – taking a philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) degree at Oxford. One of the university’s oldest freshers, he graduated in 2006, then completed an MA in the history of international relations at the London School of Economics and a further BA at Buckingham University.

His books included The Prime Minister and His Mistress (2014), about Herbert Asquith and Venetia Stanley, The Aphrodisiac of Power (2016) about the abuse of political status, and Munich, Why? (2021), described as a cold case review of Hitler’s and Chamberlain’s 1938 agreement.

He met Storey at Cambridge, on a lacrosse pitch, where her first words were: “Would you care for a cup of tea, Mr Popplewell?” They married in 1954 and had four sons. Storey, who became a Conservative councillor and chair of Buckinghamshire education committee, died in 2001. In 2008, Popplewell married Dame Elizabeth Gloster, a former appeal court judge.

She and his sons, Nigel, Andrew, Alexander and Eddie, survive him.

Source: theguardian.com