For the Jewish News from Jenni Frazer Nov 9 2016
A trip to Harrods Food Hall to buy challah on New Year’s Eve 2015 turned into a physical altercation between a leading Jewish accountant and two middle-aged shoppers.
On Monday David Buchler, the former vice-chairman of Tottenham Hotspur FC and former member of the board of the English National Opera, faced trial at Isleworth Crown Court, accused of assault, occasioning actual bodily harm.
The Crown’s prosecutor, Tim Naik, told the court that James Birrane and his wife Rosaria had clashed in the bakery queue at Harrods Food Hall and that “words were exchanged” between Mrs Birrane and Mr Buchler. Mr Birrane, giving evidence, said that he had intervened and was then struck on the nose by Mr Buchler.
Mr Birrane, 57, asked the court clerk to help him read his affirmation before giving evidence, because, he said, “I have double vision because of this incident”. He told Judge Phillip Matthews and the jury that he had been “punched, completely unprovoked”, and that he had felt “a crunching smash in the face, but I didn’t see where it came from”.
Jonathan Goldberg, QC, defending Mr Buchler, asked Mr Birrane if he had heard his wife swear at Mr Buchler and if he had heard her call him “a dirty Jew”, but he denied this. He also denied having snatched Mr Buchler’s glasses from him and thrown them on the floor, and told Mr Goldberg he was “making it up”.
Mr Goldberg told the jury that Mr Birrane had been an actor, and had starred in a couple of plays before asking him: “Are you acting now?” But Mr Birrane replied:”No, absolutely not”.
Neither side disputes that Mr Birrane’s nose was hit in what prosecutor Tim Naik called “a little scuffle” in front of the cash till at the Harrods Food Hall counter. But Mr Buchler, whose 64th birthday fell that day and who had been buying challah from the bakery, maintains that he was called “a dirty Jew” and that when James Birrane approached he had hit him in the face with his elbow, while trying to defend himself.
In a fiery appearance on the witness stand, Rosaria Birrane said that the Food Hall had been “beyond busy, bedlam” and that she had noticed Mr Buchler “pushing in front and thrusting two croissants at the counter assistant”. She said she was “a bit miffed” and alleged that Mr Buchler had started an argument with the counter assistant. She said he had sworn at the assistant in his desire to be served because he was “in a f***ing hurry”.
Mrs Birrane said she had intervened and sworn at Mr Buchler, accusing him of jumping the queue and “having a go” at the Harrods staffer. In the wake of this row, she said, “an arm” flashed past her and she realised that her husband had been hit in the face. Mr Goldberg asked why her original statement to the police had omitted all mention of the swearing during her quarrel with Mr Buchler, but she said she had been advised to leave that out by the police officer.
Mr Goldberg drew attention to a comment Mrs Birrane had posted on a Daily Mail online article in September 2016, giving details of the forthcoming case against Mr Buchler. She had written: “We are going to do everything we can to make sure he is convicted”. She told the court: “Yes, I wrote that, he destroyed a man’s life and then he tried to run away. I don’t want revenge, I want justice”.
When Mr Goldberg asked her whether she had called Mr Buchler “a dirty Jew”, Mrs Birrane denied it absolutely. “Shame on you!” she shouted. “I wouldn’t say that if my life depended on it. My husband is Jewish; I knew you were going to play that card when I saw your [Mr Goldberg’s] name”. Mr Goldberg said he had thought James Birrane was Irish, but Mrs Birrane responded: “His mother is Jewish, my mother-in-law, absolutely not would I say such a thing”.
The case continues.
A Jewish accountant characterised by his barrister as “more Woody Allen than Arnold Schwarzenegger” walked free on Wednesday after being found not guilty of assault by a jury at Isleworth Crown Court.
David Buchler, 64, an insolvency practitioner who is a former vice-chairman of Tottenham Hotspur FC and a former director of the English National Opera, was involved in a verbal dispute which escalated, after a clash at the bakery counter of Harrods Food Hall on December 31, 2015.
Mr Buchler, who was buying a challah and two croissants, was accused of queue-jumping by fellow-shopper Rosaria Birrane. Matters got ugly after Mr Buchler believed either Mrs Birrane or her husband, James, had called him “a dirty Jew”, and sworn at him. He told the court that Mr Birrane had come up behind him on his blind side. Believing he was going to be physically attacked, Mr Buchler raised his free arm to defend himself and connected with Mr Birrane’s face — fracturing Mr Birrane’s nose in the process.
An angry Mrs Birrane called 999 and, in evidence she gave in court, maintained that Mr Buchler had “ruined [her husband’s] life” and that she would do whatever she could to achieve justice for him. Admitting she was running a “vendetta” against Mr Buchler, she lost her temper several times in giving evidence on Tuesday. On Wednesday, immediately before the jury gave their verdict, Judge Phillip Matthews warned her about reacting to their decision if they found in Mr Buchler’s favour — “because this could have consequences”.
Mr Goldberg told the court: “Of all the queues in all the department stores in all the world, Mrs Birrane had to come into Mr Buchler’s queue.”
Both Mr and Mrs Birrane completely denied having called Mr Buchler “a dirty Jew”, but Mrs Birrane went further, claiming that her mother-in-law was Jewish and that she would never have used such an epithet.
She later acknowledged that she had no direct information about her mother-in-law’s religion other than that she recalled a conversation in which the older woman had mentioned being told to “Go back to Palestine” when she was a child.
Jonathan Goldberg, QC, successfully applied to the judge to reveal to the jury the content of many of Mrs Birrane’s Facebook posts. She told him: “Oh, you’ve been on my Facebook. I don’t have anything to hide. Knock yourself out”.
But the jury were told that her Facebook page included questionable comments about Muslims and an article about a “Jewish conspiracy to take over the world”. Mr Goldberg suggested these articles indicated that Mrs Birrane was “an equal opportunity racist.” But she responded: by shouting: “Jewish conspiracy to take over the world? Oh, for f***’s sake. Do shut up.”
Another article re-posted by Mrs Birrane criticised the Rockefeller and Rothschild families, which Mr Goldberg said, “shows the classic conspiracy theory that Jews run the world, that Jews are running the financial markets, that the Jews are starting wars”.
In his summing-up for the jury Mr Goldberg repeatedly drew attention to inconsistencies in Mrs Birrane’s evidence, particularly her claim that Mr Buchler had not only sworn at her but at the Harrods counter assistant, Cecilia Price. Ms Price’s evidence was given by statement as she had had a family bereavement, but there was no mention of being verbally abused by Mr Buchler.
A large number of character witnesses gave statements in Mr Buchler’s favour, including Tottenham MP David Lemmy, former FA chairman Lord Triesman, former Spurs chair Paul Bobroff, and the retired Gibraltar Supreme court judge Barrington Black. All testified to Mr Buchler’s renown for keeping his temper rather than losing it, and for his calmness even in the most trying situations. None of them thought he was a man who would resort to physical violence. It fell to Judge Barrington Black, who knew Mr Buchler through their joint membership of Western Marble Arch Synagogue, to explain to the jury what a challah bread was and how it was the defining symbol of a Jewish Friday night meal.
Mr Buchler, who was once chairman of the UJIA’s business division, and served on its board together with his late wife Caroline, is a father of six who has homes in France and Israel. Speaking after the verdict, he told the JN: “There are no winners in a case such as this. I am truly grateful to the jury for seeing the truth and voting accordingly”.