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 with Mr Buchler 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.