Sunday, 22 May 2011

Schillings not helping their clients, exactly

Yesterday I had no idea of the identity of the footballer known as TSE, who like so many others had sought an injunction to prevent knowledge of his affair with an unnamed woman reaching the ears of the public or the front pages of the newspapers. That I do now - it was not a name I recognised - is due to the unbelievably self-defeating tactics of lawyers Schillings, who have asked the Attorney General to launch contempt proceedings against a journalist who posted some snarky comments about said footballer on Twitter.

That's the second time in a week that Schillings' legal manoeuvres have backfired. It was their decision to seek a disclosure order against Twitter - to force them to reveal an anonymous Deep Throat whose identity they probably don't even know - that have made another of their clients (still unnamed in English newspapers) into an international laughing stock. Something he doesn't deserve, even if he did shag Imogen Thomas.

Can anyone fathom what these expensive solicitors - among the most sought-after and expert specialists in the law of privacy and libel - thought they were doing? Protecting their clients? A moment's contemplation ought to have informed them that their legal action has all but guaranteed their clients' worldwide notoriety. In neither case, incidentally, did the problem arise from the initial decision to pursue an injunction. After all, there are several footballers with privacy injunction who, while the subject of some online speculation, have not been faced the humiliation being heaped on one player as I write, and sure to be visited upon the other very soon.

There's some safety in numbers, and with so many footballers to choose from, some are bound to be identified correctly, either through leaks or guesswork. But if nothing is confirmed or denied, online rumours remain rumours. What has happened this weekend is not the consequence of online rumours, but of Schillings' farcical attempts to make the rumours stop. The more desperate their attempts become to preserve their clients anonymity, the more inevitable their failure becomes.

Should they have allowed people breaching the injunctions to escape with impunity? If the alternative is to cause these footballers even greater embarrassment, then yes. Obviously. They are supposed to be representing their clients, not some abstract principle of the supremacy of the courts. The purpose of these privacy injunctions, one assumes, is damage limitation - to keep the names of celebrities and the details of their indiscretions, as far as possible, off the front pages and out of the public eye. Turning them into a cause celebre of the internet age is bound to have the opposite effect.

Perhaps Schillings imagine that taking legal sanctions against injunction-busters on Twitter will have a deterrent effect upon others who might be tempted to breach future injunctions. But if that is the case, they have jeopardised their present clients to protect their future ones - and, perhaps, to preserve their own lucrative privacy business, which Twitter has threatened to undermine. For let there be no doubt about it, it is the behaviour of Schillings - not of the anonymous Tweeter, nor of the unnameable journalist, nor of Twitter Inc of California, nor even of the tabloid press - that has turned these footballers into front-page news.

A solicitor's first duty is supposed to be to act in the best interests of his client. On that basis, Schillings are very bad lawyers indeed.

As for the footballers, they would have been better off hiring Max Clifford.