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Was Charles Ingram, the Coughing Major, innocent?

Blog | By Bob Woffinden | Apr 15, 2020

Charles and Diana Ingram (Credit: Threaders)

On 10th September 2001, Major Charles Ingram became the third winner of the top prize on ITV’s highly successful quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

The next day, with Al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington, the world changed. A few days later, Charles’s world changed, too, though not as he had anticipated. He was accused by ITV of having cheated to win the million-pound prize.

This was straight away leaked to the press. It instantly became a top news story and soon replaced even the Twin Towers reports in the headlines.

There was intense public speculation about how a criminal gang had managed to pull off such a spectacular heist. Concealed cameras? Hidden microphones? What was the technical brilliance that enabled them to link the man in the centre of the studio to an outside accomplice with access to, presumably, reference books or a computer?

Actually, none of the above. The story as it emerged – firstly in the Sun and ulti- mately as the prosecution case at a criminal trial in April 2003 – was that a fellow contestant, Tecwen Whittock, had helpfully ‘coughed’ the correct answers to Ingram.

Long before the case reached trial, the media had ensured that this affair was embedded in the national consciousness. Ingram was portrayed as bumbling and dim-witted – ‘military intelligence is a contradiction in terms,’ the Daily Mirror reminded its readers. He was not just incapable of answering the quiz questions unaided – he was so incompetent he couldn’t even think up a credible plot to win the prize by cheating! The received view of the case was that it was so ridiculous and absurd, it must be true.

Charles, his wife, Diana, and Whittock, the head of business studies at Pontypridd College, were all prosecuted and, at trial in 2003, found guilty. They were ordered to pay fines and costs. The verdicts were swiftly followed by ITV’s triumphal broadcast of Tonight With Trevor McDonald, a documentary about the case that achieved the highest audience for a non-fiction programme since the funeral of the Princess of Wales.

Both the prosecution and the documentary used a programme soundtrack in which the coughs that the Crown Pros-cution Service (CPS) wished to focus on were artificially exaggerated while all other ambient sound was faded down. Similarly, a critical feature of the case made both in court and on television was that when Ingram was briefly tempted to go for the wrong answer on the penultimate half-a-million-pound question, a spluttered ‘No!’ succeeded in diverting him to the right course.

The barrage of media obloquy that Charles suffered completely obscured the kind of person he actually was. He almost belonged to an earlier era, when rules and conventions were not just obeyed but were unquestioned. In all respects, he was assiduous in conforming; he would never, even momentarily, park on double yellow lines. A family man with three daughters, he had enjoyed a fairly successful Army career which included a tour of duty as part of the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia. Academically, he had a degree in civil engineering and a master’s from Cranfield. He was also a member of Mensa.

After his conviction, he had to resign his commission – it was imperative, he knew, that the military should not be tainted by any scandal – and his life was in ruins. The career he’d loved was now lost to him. Neither had he other means of making a living. He turned up on a few demeaning television shows; the appearance fees got the family through a couple of sticky periods. But the media persecution went on and on. The Daily Mail told its readers that ‘the name Charles Ingram provokes the kind of response usually reserved for mass murderers’. In their desperation, Diana started designing jewellery and selling it at craft fairs. That is still how they still scrape a living today.

But if Charles’s character was never examined properly, neither were the events themselves. Probably no one realised just how thin the prosecution case actually was.

The first point that might have aroused public bewilderment is that there was a studio full of cameras and microphones, and hence a complete audio-visual record of everything that occurred; so why, if Ingram and Whittock were as culpable as the media asserted, did it take eighteen months to cobble a prosecution case together?

The CPS logic was that Ingram, after a poor first day performance, panicked overnight and sought emergency aid from Whittock to help him through the rest of the questions. But if this was a conspiracy, then it was unique in English criminal history; Ingram and Whittock had never met or spoken to or communicated with each other at any time.

At the time when they were supposedly hatching this plot, they were actually driving in opposite directions on the M4 – Whittock to turn up at the studio in good time for his own hoped-for appearance, and Ingram to return to his Army work at the Headquarters Adjutant General in Wiltshire.

The police, of course, had full access to their mobile phones and their home and office computers; and analysis of these confirmed that there had been no communication between them.

As programme enthusiasts, Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock – who also had never met – exchanged three mobile phone calls in the relevant period, but these lasted only eight minutes in total. They said they were chatting about studio arrangements and wishing each other luck.

If the prosecution case were correct, it seemed remarkable that Diana was able to recruit the very first person she turned to, that Whittock agreed to assist without demur, and that the details of their scheme could have been ironed out so speedily. There was also no reason why one should have wanted to be involved with the other. Whittock would have had no interest in prolonging the performance of a fellow contestant, which as a result might have precluded his own participation. Neither was there any reason why Ingram would have wished to recruit Whittock, a competent but by no means infallible quizzer.

Not only were Ingram and Whittock not in contact prior to the performance, they were not in contact after it. If Whittock had risked all to help a stranger win a million-pound prize, wouldn’t he have been interested to know when he would be receiving his own cut?

Today one can see, on YouTube, the winning performances of the two previous million-pound winners, Judith Keppel and David Edwards, and hear coughs that, had the CPS been putting together a case, they would have deemed leading. But of course they weren’t. They were merely accidental, as they also were during Ingram’s performance. In any event, up-to-date computer analysis of the coughs attributed to Whittock at the trial now shows they were not all made by the same person.

There was also a vital eighteen-minute section of Ingram’s performance during which the prosecution could find no suspect coughs at all. That was something else the UK media didn’t tell the public.

The TV production team expected Ingram to do badly because they knew that rollover contestants (i.e. someone who was still playing when the previous show finished), being not so much inhibited as petrified by the well-meant advice from home not to lose the money they had already accumulated, generally under-performed on their return to the studio.

Ingram, like Keppel before him, did not adhere to this stereotype. He attributed his own poor first-day performance to timidity and, as he straight away told Chris Tarrant, the programme host, reckoned a bolder approach might pay off.

In reaching the £32,000 level he had already lost all his lifelines, so the producers didn’t expect him to recover. Yet one of the three subsequent million-pound winners (who was again an Ingram, Ingram Wilcox) also escaped from that same precarious position.

The key part of the case at trial concerned the ‘No!’ which, jurors were told, represented a flagrant and desperate attempt to influence the contestant. Prior to the case going to the CPS, it had been handled by Goodman Derrick, ITV’s highly reputable lawyers. Over a year before the court case, they had assiduously gone through the tape and assembled a court transcript. They weren’t quite satisfied and so asked the judge’s permis- sion, as they had to, to go through it all again. They then presented their revised evidence. At this stage, there is no ‘No!’

Whether or not there ever was a ‘No!’ is irrelevant. If some of the most meticulous lawyers in the country, after a rigorous examination of the programme tape, were completely unaware of it, then Ingram would similarly have been unaware of it when he was playing the game.

Ingram and Tarrant were at the centre of the studio with the waiting contestants around them. Excluding Ingram himself and Whittock, there were ten objective witnesses in this inner circle. Of these, one thought he heard something suspicious; the other nine did not. So, in taking the case to trial, the CPS ignored the evidence of the ninety per cent majority and recruited the solitary witness whose testimony would chime with their script.

Other astonishing aspects of the trial were unreported. For example, jurors were not allowed to visit the television studio, the supposed crime scene. All defence lawyers had anticipated that this would happen, at which point jurors would see how compact the studio was and if someone had been signalling to the person in the chair, how unlikely it was that almost no one in the 200-strong audience would have been aware of it.

The contaminating effects of relentless media antipathy on criminal trial processes are even today not understood. A judge will blithely tell jurors that they must put all they may have read or heard about a case out of their minds. There is, of course, no evidence that this can be done.

More importantly, it should be remembered that during the trial defence lawyers are taking legal decisions that, but for the hostile atmosphere created by the media, they would not be taking.

For example, the jury were not told that Ingram was a member of Mensa. This was obviously a highly relevant evidential point. However, who knew how this, too, might have been turned to Charles’s disadvantage? After all, it was the UK tabloid press that turned ‘do- gooder’ into a term of abuse.

Certainly, Ingram had been concerned when the production team first indicated there were problems with his winning performance. He knew that he and his family had worked the system to their advantage. Like others in the country, they’d realised that if the telephone calls applying to get on the programme were made at certain times – in a block of twenty or thirty calls together, at the very start of the application period, and in the early hours of the morning – your chances of being selected were greatly enhanced. If you waited until ITV continuity announcers were encouraging viewers to phone in, your chances were negligible. But that was hardly Ingram’s fault.

Today, from his meagre income, Ingram is still paying the fine imposed by the court in 2003. For some years, all avenues appeared closed to him. The Leveson Inquiry was set up ostensibly to examine the persecution of individuals by the UK media. The inquiry heard evidence from J K Rowling, Sienna Miller and Anne Diamond, all people of entirely unblemished reputations; but declined to hear evidence from many, like Charles, whom the media had seriously traduced.

In the light of all the evidence now available, he has applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission for the case to be heard again at appeal. However, the judicial processes are notoriously slow, and I would suggest that ITV sets up a Pollard-style inquiry (like the BBC’s intoNewsnight) to enable it to examine the case more quickly.

I had at first been reluctant to write a book about all this. After all, it wasn’t the Birmingham Six. Then I realised that it is of inestimable importance. The affair has destroyed the lives of Ingram and his family, who were simply conscientious, decent and hard-working members of society.

It is also one of the greatest media deceptions of modern times.

So ridiculous it must be true? No, just ridiculous.

l Bad Show by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett, Bojangles Books £20.