Stop the press
19 November 2001
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Keith Schilling is the man many tabloid editors would like to see put out to grass. The editor of the Sunday People would probably like to see him put out for the vultures, but more of that later.
Schilling is the eponymous founding partner of Schilling & Lom and Partners, the niche media practice that looks after the stars. For example, there is a large pink file in Schilling's office labelled Kate Winslett (sic) v Hello. Other files that are not on show would include supermodel Naomi Campbell, Formula One head Bernie Ecclestone, celebrity chef Marco Pierre White, glamour princess Liz Hurley and disc jockey Sara Cox. At his first firm Wright Webb Syrett, which he joined as an outdoor clerk aged 16, Schilling got used to seeing Jack Nicholson and Rod Stewart around.
Schilling even looks like a lawyer to the celebs: the tan that betrays him taking one of his 10 weeks annual holiday fairly recently, an expensively cut black suit and, most shockingly, not only no tie, but a white shirt with at least three buttons undone. The rumours are that he used to drive a Ferrari, and he readily admits that his work is glamorous.
"It's interesting to see the people behind the stories and fascinating to see that lifestyle that most of us could only hope to read about," he says, although given the proliferation of magazines that accompany the stars on holiday "as they reveal their stunning new look", that hope is not entirely in vain.
Schilling admits that sometimes it is not easy telling cosseted stars that they are talking nonsense. "I think that, certainly when you're dealing with some clients, you're aware that some of the people around them are not as objective as they could be. It becomes harder for us because when we say what we do it comes as a bolt from the blue. We wouldn't have many clients if we said what we thought."
Instead, says Schilling, sometimes it is necessary to break the news slowly, dropping hints that the claim is hopeless or unmeritorious before putting the client straight.
Sara Cox, who I am sure is able to take bad news well, is currently instructing Schilling & Lom on a very high-profile spat with the Sunday People, which printed nude pictures of her on her honeymoon. Cox complained to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which ordered a page three apology, but after its publication Cox threatened to sue the Sunday People under the Human Rights Act for invasion of privacy.
It is a threat that has been condemned as "bloodlust" by Bob Satchwell, the executive director of the Society of Editors, but Schilling obviously disagrees. Cox's motive, he says, is not to gain money for the sake of money but to try to deter newspapers from doing the same thing again.
"I can't think of anyone whose daughter was photographed naked who wouldn't think it was an invasion of privacy," says Schilling. "If all you do is complain to the PCC, then I don't see that you've achieved a lot in the way of deterrents. Papers profit from those types of stories."
I point out to Schilling that in the past Cox has not exactly been camera shy, so if she is quite happy being a public figure some of the time, perhaps she ought to accept
that the press will play her at her own game.
"Even if someone's been a public figure, I don't think that their private moments are a matter for public consumption," is Schilling's reply. "If you take that argument to its logical conclusion, then in the case of someone who's courted publicity, you're entitled to see their medical records or to know what they told their solicitor or priest; there's no line that can then be drawn.
"I have no interest in knowing what people do privately and no interest in seeing what people do on their honeymoon."
In fact, Schilling has so little interest that he does not read any newspapers apart from the Financial Times. This is partly because he fears he would spend his whole time deconstructing the articles and pondering whether it was, for example, really a 'close friend' who had informed the newspaper; and partly because "I don't find news that stimulating. I prefer to read a good book. I'd regard it as a terrible waste of a Sunday morning reading the newspapers."
As someone who scours foreign cities for English newspapers while on holiday, I am completely shocked by this and it takes me a while to recover. Schilling might as well have said that he truly believed Police Academy 7 to be the greatest contribution to the cinematography of the 20th century.
As Schilling himself admits, his firm has received a disproportionate amount of publicity in recent weeks, not all of it good. For starters, Nicholas Lom, his partner of 17 years, has decided to head to pastures new at Simons Muirhead & Burton, then defamation partner Mark Thomson decided to move to Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners. Lom's departure also means that the film and television department will now close. But Schilling says that the parting was agreed mutually.
"This is quite a hard firm," says Schilling of Lom's move. "We have high-profile work and high-profile clients, and we haven't made great friends in the press as most of our work is against the press. There are great rewards, but it's hard."
Later on, Schilling says that the film and television work just did not pay well enough. "I'd describe the litigation work as relatively high-margin work, but film and TV work is much less so. With the right client following, it's still possible to be very successful as a film lawyer, it's just that the firm's decision was that it needed to be more modern in a developing area in which we can make an impact."
That developing area is sports-related work, for which Schilling & Lom (the firm's name will remain unchanged) is to take on Peter Goodman of CSS Stellar Management, an agency which represents, among others, Real Madrid FC footballer Luis Figo, until recently the world's most expensive player.
The move is a reflection on how sports stars are the new film idols of our day, the firm's logic being to bring them into the fold on their multimillion-pound contracts, and soon enough the firm will be handling their complaints against the Sunday tabloids, which thrive on a diet of footballers' indiscretions. This, though, might be changed by the recent ruling under the Human Rights Act (involving an unnamed footballer's two affairs and the Sunday People) which asserted that sexual relationships are by their nature confidential and their disclosure is not in the public interest. If allowed to stand, The Mail on Sunday editor Peter Wright told the Press Gazette that it could "mean about 30-40 per cent of every story, in every newspaper, could potentially be unreportable and a matter for legal action".
Broadly speaking, Schilling is in favour of the ruling, believing at the moment that legal action does not dissuade tabloids from running kiss-and-tell stories, as the legal fees are just factored in as part of the cost of getting a story.
"I'm not sure that tabloids are the most appropriate moral guardians," muses Schilling. "It's interesting that the broadsheets aren't interested in those types of stories."
Given that the tabloid sector is under constant bombardment at the moment, the news that Schilling & Lom is to sign up Martin Cruddace, head of legal at Trinity Mirror and a close ally of The Mirror editor Piers Morgan, has not been well received.
Cruddace used to be an articled clerk to Schilling. "I don't think the press are generally happy at the idea of him becoming a gamekeeper," he says.
In order to placate the tabloid market, Cruddace will begin by concentrating on work connected to the broadsheets.
Schilling draws on his own experience for the reason why Cruddace has decided to cross the fence. "I used to work for Private Eye years and years ago, and it can be very frustrating being a defendant lawyer, although you can have an economic advantage," he says. I guess acting for claimants means that you deal with fragrant celebrities rather than grubby hacks. His experiences with Private Eye led Schilling to turn one potential client away - Robert Maxwell.
"Through Private Eye, I'd seen what Maxwell was like," reflects Schilling. "It was the only newspaper that saw through Maxwell and got regularly clobbered for it in the libel courts. I saw Maxwell through the Eye's eyes. I thought he was a bully and didn't like it at all. I didn't hear any more about it, so I assume that his leap from the boat wasn't to do with us not representing him."
Schilling & Lom and Partners