“There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.” – Brendan Behan
Over the decades various interpretations of this phrase have been expressed to me by reporters, freelance journalists and publicity seekers with their own agendas. Ironically, genuine endorsement of this assertion is usually only to be found among those who have something to gain from the generation of negative publicity for others. It is truly rare that one encounters an individual who has no qualms as to how low a tabloid will sink, as long as they are its subject.
I was 25 years old when my relationship with the popular press began. “Back in those days everything was simpler and more confused …”. It was 1970, and then as now the media loved an anti-hero, someone who does and says things which its readers would never dare to, but can experience vicariously. Someone who can seduce and entertain them, and become a sacrificial goat sent into the wilderness when the next cause célèbre hits the headlines.
For the first three years of the 1970s rarely a week passed when I was not the subject of media attention. The occult and the supernatural sold papers fast, as the nation flirted with and recoiled in horror at the ‘witchcraft’ craze which was spreading fast through England, Europe and the rest of the western world. The Temple of Satan was flourishing in America, and Anton LaVey had become the new Joe DiMaggio. The Munsters had been good, safe fun to watch but now the all too real Manson Family had filled their niche and no one knew where it would end. Living in Highgate, then a nucleus for many black and white magical groups, and as an outspoken practitioner of Wicca, or the Old Religion, I became a kind of ‘poster boy’ as my wife Della has posited for the zeitgeist of these energetic times.
I contributed many articles to newspapers outlining the true objectives of Wicca and its fundamental differences to Satanism and the black arts. I also wrote heavily on the subject of the paranormal, especially in relation to the Highgate ‘vampire’ case. The latter had become distorted out of all recognition after my original investigation into a local ‘ghost’ had been hijacked by the local and national press, not helped by my own arrest for ‘vampire hunting’ in 1970 – a charge of which I was acquitted. My decision to, with what I then perceived as the support of the press, parody this arrest led to many bizarre and sensationalist headlines and photoshoots which in my naivety I considered to be a bit of lighthearted fun – and a poke in the eye for the prejudiced Metropolitan Police force. Suddenly every argument I had with a fellow occultist was documented by the press. And when I wasn’t sending ‘voodoo curses’ to famous musicians and kidnapping their cats, I was dancing with naked girls in crypts, receiving challenges to occult duels or lighting fires in abandoned mansions daubed with magical sigils. All good fun, I suppose!
But what had started as an attempt to develop my own understanding of the paranormal and educate the public about the reality of white magic had become a rollercoaster of absurdity. Below you can read some of the many newspaper reports which chronicle my dark and strange journey through the 1970s and decide for yourselves the truth behind these various accusations and reports.
Fast-forward to January 1974, and I wasn’t just hitting the headlines but being hit by them. The police had not forgotten my acquittal, and were determined to pin something on me – anything – and stop my perceived subversive influence upon society and mockery of its traditional values. Overnight I was transmogrified from an enfant terrible to a bête noire. What happened next – my trial at the Old Bailey for what amounted to witchcraft and my jail sentence of four years and eight months – is documented elsewhere, not least in my autobiographies In the Shadow of the Highgate Vampire and Out of the Shadows. On the day of my conviction The Sun ran the front page headline “King of Black Magic Guilty” accompanied by a large photograph of myself clearly intended to be interpreted as a ‘mug shot’. I have never practised Black Magic in my life, let alone proclaimed myself a ‘king’ in that arena. Fortunately my parents had both passed away by this time, and were not exposed to such a horrific piece of reporting, but the social impact upon my friends and members of my society was understandably devastating. Indeed, the headline is only reproduced on this site in the hope that it will lead readers to articles such as this which encourage a deeper understanding of the very human impact which results from the vilification and dehumanisation of an innocent person.
I was granted early release from prison in July 1976 following a near-fatal hunger strike in protest at the Home Office’s refusal to let me contact my legal team, the press or groups which campaigned for prisoners’ rights. The tabloid press mysteriously made little reference to my hunger strike and its implications. However some maverick journalists picked up the story and were brave enough to encourage the public to consider whether they had perhaps been a little too eager to swallow the version of the truth fed to them by the gossip columns.
One of these was Peter Hounam, who in 1976 drew attention to a campaign which I had launched upon my release with the slogan “Farrant is innocent – OK?” Peter swiftly come to the attention of the British government , who firmly gave him the unequivocal ‘suggestion’ that he should “leave the Farrant issue alone.” But such suppression proved fruitless, as more journalists began to take up my cause. One such reporter was Peter Gruner, then writing for the North London Weekly Herald, who began to challenge various aspects of my trial. This included questioning who really made the Black Magical markings in the Cory-Wright mausoleum and why, if they really were persons unrelated to myself, they appeared to have immunity from the police. Gruner’s research was lent weight by my many published articles opposing Satanism and Black Magic – something which the popular press also chose to ignore after my ‘fall from grace’.
Duncan Campbell who like Gruner and Hounam has remained respected for his integrity throughout a long media career, also published articles in support of my cause. Some of these appealed to fellow journalists to encourage the reporter who I knew only as ‘Hutchinson’ to come forwards regarding a photograph he took of me in the Terrace Catacombs at Highgate Cemetery in 1971. This photograph was used by the prosecution to contrive a charge of offering indignities to the remains of the dead – a charge which would have been dropped if the journalist in question had confirmed in court that I did no such thing and merely posed next to an already vandalised coffin holding a torch. I was given a two year jail sentence for that.
Ironically, when the Sunday People learned of my quest to trace Hutchinson they informed me that they had indeed located a journalist of that name. In 1977 they specifically asked me to leave this to them before contacting anybody else with this new information. I did as they requested, but heard nothing further. When I contacted them again a little later that year they told me that they were ‘still working on it’. Hutchinson worked as a freelancer, and it is perhaps commonsense to conclude that once approached by this leading Sunday newspaper, and informed that I was still attempting to encourage him to come forward, he declined due to the potential adverse publicity which would be instigated by the very press machine which he himself worked for. Potential damage that doing so could have caused his career was no doubt a factor. He had, after all, had ample opportunity to stop what he knew was an erroneous prosecution case back in 1974, but said and did nothing when the press reported my explanation of the circumstances surrounding the photograph.
A word to the wise, which Max Clifford himself could have benefitted from observing: the press is a vicious and unpredictable creature, a snake which can be petted but could at any moment fatally sting its ‘owner’. Do I regret courting the press before it turned and bit me? Of course I would do some things differently with 40 plus years of maturation behind me. But at least I lived to tell the tale. I began with a quote, so perhaps I shall end with one, from a man who was also pilloried by the very press which had helped make him famous:
“There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
What will people be saying about yourself in 44 years time, dear reader?
David Farrant 2014
My personal views on some headlines …
From the infamous scrapbooks … enjoy at your leisure!