Dear Court of Appeal: Can we have your final answer?
In recent weeks, ITV’s dramatisation of Major Charles Ingram 2001 "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” appearance proved hugely popular, netting nearly 6 million viewers. Adapted from the stage play, Quiz was undoubtedly an inspired piece of television with an all-star cast. The loveable Major Ingram is eventually convicted of “procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception”. His wife Diana Ingram and a third man, Tecwen Whittock were found responsible for a scheme to ‘prompt’ Major Ingram, as he read each answer aloud, with a series of strategic ‘coughs’ from their seats in the studio audience. Mostly, these coughs were said to originate from Mr Whittock, but on one occasion it came from Mrs Ingram, who apparently knew more about musician Craig David than either of her male accomplices.
As we know, it all ended in tears. In April 2003, a jury convicted all three - by majority, not unanimously. HHJ Rivlin sentenced them all to suspended periods of imprisonment, as well as ordering them to pay substantial costs. Permission to appeal against conviction was refused by the Court of Appeal in May 2004. Both the Ingrams and Mr Whittock have maintained their innocence ever since.
16 years later, what did the TV dramatisation really tell us? Firstly, there appeared to be many oddities about the way Major Ingram played the TV show. The Chairman of Celidor, the TV Production company, had the immediate impression that something was not right. The £1million cheque was stopped, perhaps justifiably. However, mere oddity is not enough for a criminal conviction.
Certainly, there was also clear evidence of a ‘system’ whereby an avid group of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” superfans propelled themselves into the ‘Fastest Finger First’ seats, no doubt at the expense of other applicants. This would have been pretty distasteful for the viewing public - who would envisage a more romantic pathway onto the show. However, the system of getting on the show was not part of the Ingrams’ indictment. It had no relevance to the alleged system of coughing whilst on the show and would, arguably, have been prejudicial for a jury.
To be sure of guilt, evidence was required of a dishonest agreement between both the Ingrams and Mr Whittock. In short: an agreement to cheat the show of its prize money. For criminal lawyers, this made the opening scene all the more fascinating because, as the three villains meet in the dock on Day 1 of their trial, Mr Whittock introduces himself to the Ingrams saying it was nice to finally meet them. Suddenly, one wondered if they are villains at all. When, and how, was this dishonest agreement actually struck? The answer seems to be a single telephone call the night before Major Ingram’s victorious run of correct answers. That call is not alleged to include Major Ingram but only his wife Diana, calling up Mr Whittock. It was alleged they agreed on the coughing scheme in this solitary call. But as both were superfans of the show, and Mr Whittock was in the back-up chairs to be the next contestant, that conversation might have been an innocent one.
Importantly, Major Ingram’s success (and indeed the Prosecution case theory) also hinged upon his own ability to tell, under the pressure of studio lights and with a grinning Chris Tarrant in front of him, which cough was that of Mr Whittock. Mr Whittock was a man sat behind him whom Major Ingram had never met, and never spoken to.
Indeed, suppose the scheme did not involve an agreement from Major Ingram at all, but was simply Diana Ingram and Mr Whittock agreeing to try to ‘prompt’ their contestant by coughing on the correct answers? Even if Major Ingram picked up on this prompting, is that necessarily dishonest without being party to their agreement? In an open studio environment, is it dishonest to try to read through all four answers out loud, and then gauge the host’s reaction, or the audience reaction, in order to determine which answer to settle on? Surely that is just a tactical approach to a game – rather like studying the opponent who is about to try and save your penalty.
It was also highly concerning that Celidor, no doubt acting on Mr Smith’s suspicions, immediately seized and edited the only footage of the TV show, which was later used at trial. Happily, Diana Ingram’s current appeal lawyer, Rhona Freidman, says that advances in technology since 2004 have removed this problem, explaining:-
“Where we’ve got to now is the ability to properly discern the many coughs…… As will become clearer in the TV show and was made clear in the play which it was based on, there were over 200 coughs during the recording”.
As to what went wrong in the 2003 trial, Friedman adds:-
“The chain of continuity of the audio exhibits which were presented to the jury as ‘expert evidence’ has got gaps in it. In the Ingram case, the programme makers were allowed to produce the ‘expert evidence’ with very limited police oversight. What they ended with at trial was a gentleman’s agreement that nothing has been done to alter the trial exhibits. But there is no place for a gentleman’s agreement in a criminal trial”.
This is surely the key observation, because the agreement that the programme maker themselves be treated as experts in the trial meant that the aggrieved company were also allowed to present themselves as independent and unbiased. From their editing, sprang the idea that Whittock’s coughs were made at particular times, and that Major Ingram was responding with not only correct answers but also the knowledge of which coughs to listen out for. Were the protagonists not playing out their roles in front of us, it might be difficult for a jury to understand how such a scheme could work. In this way, perhaps Celidor’s own footage literally brought it to life.
Might the sorry tale of the Ingrams be simply a large TV company preparing its own evidence in order to retain its own prize money, and then being treated as the impartial expert in the criminal trial that followed? Only new experts, and the Court of Appeal judges, can give us the final answer to this puzzle.
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Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.