As libel trials go, Roman Polanski’s recent claim against magazine Vanity Fair was pretty sensational. With witnesses including actor Mia Farrow and stories of wild affairs set against the background of a violent murder, it was a case followed closely by the broadsheets and tabloids alike.
Vanity Fair had published an article in 2002 alleging that, shortly after the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson’s gang in 1969, the film director had attempted to seduce a Swedish model in a New York restaurant.
To defend the article, publishers Condé Nast turned to Reynolds Porter Chamberlain (RPC) media partner David Hooper and Tom Shields QC of One Brick Court. Hooper and Shields, both experts in media law, have worked together several times before.
But Polanski’s solicitors, Schillings, took a different tack and looked outside the usual roster of media law chambers for the silk who would fight for Polanski in the High Court.
John Kelsey-Fry QC, a tenant at Hollis Whiteman Chambers, is a vastly experienced criminal barrister reputed for his fraud and crime work. Appointed silk in 2000, Kelsey-Fry – or simply ‘Kelsey’ as he is called by most people – has prosecuted a number of high-profile murder and fraud cases.
But libel is a new area for Kelsey-Fry. His first case was in May 2005, defending the News of the World and The Sun against the libel claim brought by a Romanian going under the assumed name of Alin Turcu, who was implicated in an alleged kidnap plot involving former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham. A notable debut. News International’s former barrister of choice was George Carman QC.
The Turcu case, like Polanski’s, was originally destined to be heard before a jury, although ultimately the earlier case was heard by Mr Justice Eady alone. As a criminal specialist, this is an area where Kelsey-Fry shines.
He was not involved in the preliminary arguments in Polanski, when the film director was fighting for his right to give evidence by videolink from his home in France. Polanski did not want to come to the UK for fear of being extradited to the US, where he is wanted for statutory rape, but as Vanity Fair sells over 54,000 copies in the UK he was entitled to have his case heard here.
Schillings instructed Ely Place Chambers head Ronald Thwaites QC, who like Shields has an excellent reputation in defamation cases, for the High Court and Court of Appeal hearings on Polanski’s application for a videolink. 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square silk Richard Spearman then appeared in the House of Lords, where Polanski was successful.
But Thwaites turned out to be unavailable for the trial itself, being tied up acting for Balfour Beatty in the Hatfield rail crash case. Schillings turned to Kelsey-Fry, with whom it had never previously worked.
The defence’s counter-arguments to Polanski’s defamation claim were twofold. First, the magazine claimed the story was substantially true, but it admitted that it had got the date of Polanski’s visit to the restaurant wrong. Second, it argued that Polanski did not have a reputation to harm. In his closing statement, Shields said: “As to whether his reputation is capable of being damned, members of the jury, sadly we would say it is beyond repair.”
Kelsey-Fry’s closing statement rebutted the defence’s claims and landed a devastating blow by pointing out that the “Swedish model” involved – actually a Norwegian named Beate Telle – had not been called as a witness.
The jury returned a verdict in favour of Polanski, finding the Vanity Fair article libellous, and Eady J awarded damages of £50,000 and £175,000 of costs.
A fine victory for Schillings and Kelsey-Fry. The media bar, for so long a closed shop, may at last have a worthy competitor.