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The Experts: Baying for the blood of the famous

This is an expanded version of my latest post for The Times, which appears on The Experts blog today.

Marilyn Stowe

As a family lawyer, I am accustomed to representing men and women whose lives have been turned upside down after relationships have broken down. Some of our clients are famous and most are not so famous. However many of them share common ground. Their relationships have been destroyed by indiscretions. They underestimated the consequences.

In my experience, famous men and women are no less prone to temptation than anyone else. They make mistakes. They let their guard slip. They do things in an instant that later, in the full light of day, they bitterly regret. Are they different from any of us? I don’t think so. We are all human beings, and none of us are perfect.

So should celebrities’ indiscretions ever be splashed across the media, flung into the public domain for the rest of us to salivate over?

I am not so sure, just as I believe that divorce cases, many containing “juicy detail”, should always be heard in private. Our courts are being urged to open their doors as widely as possible, but  I would argue that in private law cases, this is wrong. What a client does within his or her marriage should remain private. That includes financial arrangements unless the courts direct otherwise, in cases of extremis when naming is required.

For example, if judgments are to be published because they are part of precedent, then all parties should be anonymised. The private lives of those unfortunate enough to come before the courts should remain private. Is it right that at some point in the future, Beatrice McCartney will be able to read the public judgment of her parents’ financial battle and the comments of the court about her mother? Whose business was it anyway?

Likewise, a footballer is famous for being a footballer. I am not interested if he is happily married or otherwise. What he gets up to in his private life should be a matter for him. The courts understand this and do their best to help.

All would be well except that his fame, whether he sought it or not, makes him a target for all those who, a couple of hundred years ago, would likely have been cheering the arrival of the tumbrils in Paris. Back then, the crowds bayed for aristocratic blood and they got it. Due to their position in society, the aristocrats were seen to deserve such fates. Les Tricoteuses sat close to the guillotine, knitting as thousands of men and women were decapitated. Everybody cheered and the bodies were thrown into lime pits.

In 2011, we think we have changed. But does human nature ever really change? Or is it merely controlled in our more sophisticated times, unleashing itself in a different way?

I am aware that in the face of fierce arguments for the naming and shaming of holders of superinjunctions, not to mention a Twitter storm, my views may place me in the minority.  However I was pleased today when Mr Justice Eady rejected an application to discharge a footballer’s privacy injunction. As the judge stated: “The court’s duty remains to try and protect the claimant, and particularly his family, from intrusion and harassment so long as it can.”

As a divorce lawyer, when I read about the actions taken to stop a story coming out in the press, I think of my own clients and their families – and my sympathies are entirely with those who seek the protection of the court.

Times Law: The Experts

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. ObiterJ says:

    As a basic principle I entirely agree with you. There is often no true public interest in the revelation of extra-marital affairs.

    However, like any “rule” – there must be exceptions.

    An interesting suggestion was put by Geoffrey Robertson QC in The Times.

    Parliament to legislate a new tort to enable victims to sue in open court for damages when intimate personal details have been published without justification. (He also suggested a jury hearing).

    The “justification” could be based on the Press Complaints Commission code – i.e.

    to reveal crime or serious impropriety
    to expose hypocrisy
    to reveal secrets that threaten threaten health/public safety
    to reveal government or public service incompetence or misconduct

    An example under the latter head might well have been the revelations relating to Mr Blunkett and the visa business.

    Somewhere along the line, I suspect that, even under the law as it is rapidly developing, the scales balancing freedom of expression and right to private life will tip in favour of expression.

    Not really my field but I found Robertson’s idea interesting.

  2. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Thank you Obiter J.
    My view is quite straightforward. Juicy stories sell papers, magazines, advertising. The more salacious the gossip, the more revenue it produces for the media and for those who seek fame and fortune they could otherwise never hope to earn.
    They don’t care that the subjects of these stories have feelings, families, commitments and of course, their rights too.
    Collectively as a society it seems to me we are literally baying for their blood as I make clear above, we seem to feel free to devour them, regardless of the impact on say their children or spouse.
    Judges are applying a balance, between free expression and the right to privacy and family life, making orders where appropriate to protect those who seek the protection of the courts and their families but in circumstances where they find it is appropriate having heard the evidence. It is my experience that in these situations, the courts are no pushovers.
    And, whether you agree or not with the decision a court order should be obeyed.
    It cannot be right or acceptable to disregard a court order simply because a social networking medium is difficult to patrol.
    Best wishes

  3. Michael C Craven says:

    Dear Marilyn-
    Thank you so sharing your feelings so eloquently. As a divorce lawyer, divorce is so difficult on the family unit it is always sad to me to see all this publicity and gossip. I know it sells magazines and news articles but the people involved are traumatized. I hope everyone reading this information takes in account the children and people involved feelings.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Michael C. Craven
    Chicago divorce lawyer

  4. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Thanks Michael for your comments from across the pond.
    Despite the fact that freedom of speech is absolutely sacrosanct in the USA, you have demonstrated understanding and a shared sense of humanity by your comments.
    Here in the UK the media are having a ball (sorry for the pun) with the footballer and have made his life and that of his family, utterly intolerable. It is shocking and disgusting.
    Our politicians following suit, are even calling for a change in the law because the injunction hasn’t prevented disclosure of his identity.
    Unlike our judiciary, they don’t seem to get the main point:- that the media is much too powerful and drives the agenda.
    If they support you – fine. If they don’t, heaven help you. PM Netanyahu’s address to joint Congress today has not merited a single mention in the UK news today. The Middle East is in crisis. We are seeing instead pictures of President Obama inspecting an honor guard with the Queen. Israel too gets the same treatment.
    Thank you for your comment, much appreciated.
    I hope to be cycling on Lakeshore Drive very soon,
    Best wishes,

  5. Irpreet Kohli says:

    Dear Marilyn,

    Your view and position is interesting.

    Whilst as a fellow divorce lawyer, I broadly agree with your position, my view is that in trying to take action to ‘protect’ his family, this particular individual in fact made the whole situation worse.

    I accept that we are all human and make mistakes. I also think though that with being a public figure and someone who is ‘famous’, these individuals should appreciate that they are more at risk of having their private lives splashed across the media and probably not entirely accurately either.

    Whilst I do not condone the approach of the media, I think this fact needs to be accepted as reality for high profile individuals and they need to be even more on their guard when going about their everyday life and when they find themselves in ‘situations’ that could ultimately hurt and humiliate those closest to them. Their profile has amazing perks – but they should simultaneously accept the downsides.

    If mistakes are made, admit them to your family and keep your head down until the media move on to the next story.

    The unfortunate reality of the current story is that by taking out an injunction and then indicating that legal action would also be taken against twitter (essentially the peoples’ forum), he further put himself and his family in the spotlight and elevated the story to a level where the interest far exceeded the attention it would have been given without the legal action. The story would have been forgotten the Monday Morning after it was spashed all over the Sunday papers.

    In this case, I think by trying to ‘protect’ his family, he has simply made the humiliation and hurt for them worse and has further made himself look even more the fool for making not one but two huge mistakes…….

    Am now following your blog with interest! Thanks for your views.


  6. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Dear Irpreet
    Thanks for your comments, which of course reflect the views of many people.
    I’m different, because I think that the balance should be struck by the courts, hearing the evidence and applying the law, not the media just because they don’t like the law.
    The Streisand effect has occurred because that’s how the media want it. They are making the footballer and all those around him, pay the price of trying to keep his private life private.
    And why shouldn’t he? What business is it of ours?
    He and his wife will have been going though hell in any event. Now it’s magnified, but not because of him or the courts, from whom he rightly sought protection, but the determination of the media to ignore a court order.
    And as for Hemmings- didn’t he too shockingly abuse his position?
    Sorry but I believe in the rule of law, not of the mob.

  7. Lukey says:

    “Likewise, a footballer is famous for being a footballer. I am not interested if he is happily married or otherwise.”

    I would agree with this, but it is not as simple as that, the footballer in question makes MASSIVE earnings from his ‘squeaky-clean image in sponsorship deals – this image is based on a lie and it is wholly appropriate that it is brought out into the open. If he wants to make money from his image then he should take the consequences, and if that upsets his family then it is unfortunate but it is HIS fault.

    There is another factor here, you can only bring these injunctions if you are rich – so we end up with one law for the wealthy and another for everybody else. This, plus the fact that Judges seem to be ludicrously behind the times in terms of what is practical and what is not, has badly damaged confidence in the judicial system.
    Quite frankly at the moment they are a laughing stock.

  8. Marilyn Stowe says:

    You are absolutely right to have your opinion about people in the public eye. However they too have a right to privacy.
    When a Judge makes an interim order he isn’t stopping the story ultimately coming out. What he is doing is balancing the rights of both sides until the full trial. I don’t think that has been sufficiently clear in all the media fuss.
    He isn’t finding for or against either party but is preserving the status quo until trial. At that point he makes his decision.
    If the story is published beforehand then the rights of one party have been subverted before the trial has even begun.
    Now apply that to you or any of us. How would we feel about that?
    In some cases permanent injunctions are made, but only after all the evidence has been heard and all parties have been given the opportunity to have their say.
    It is my experience that contrary to what is written, the Judiciary are no pushovers. Appearing in any such case is always a challenge.
    As for wealth, I’m not so sure that with no win no fee cases it is as important an issues as it was in these types of cases. That’s not to say the system is perfect, but I do strongly
    believe that if a court makes an injunction it isn’t up to just anyone to break it, subvert the rule of law, rather it is for a higher court or parliament.
    And as funny as it is to people who are trying to exonerate themselves from liability by making jokes about it, none of them are fools, they are quite the opposite and none of them showed any respect to the rights of the person involved or to the court and our legal system.

  9. Lukey says:

    “If the story is published beforehand then the rights of one party have been subverted before the trial has even begun.
    Now apply that to you or any of us. How would we feel about that?”

    Marilyn, how can you ignore the fact that in so many cases with the poorer party that has already happened !!!!!

    I don’t agree with injunctions in most cases for the reasons I have already mentioned above but regardless of that you must accept that we are not all equal before the law in these cases – it’s all about how much money you can afford to spend on shutting up the press.

  10. Tulsa Divorce Attorneys says:

    Marilyn I agree with you 100%, the juicy details need to be kept private regardless of rather the couple are ‘average’ or they are ‘celebrities’.

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