There are not many lawyers who double as news reporters for the BBC, but Alistair Bonnington is one of them. Last month the BBC Scotland in-house lawyer became the epitome of BBC-style multiskilling when he spent a day standing outside Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, which is where the Lockerbie appeal was being heard. Wearing only a suit, he stood in sub-zero temperatures waiting for the appeal verdict so that he could give his analysis to the BBC’s cameras.
Bonnington not only makes sure that BBC Scotland’s television programmes are within the law, he is also one of Scotland’s most prominent campaigners for bringing the law on to the television. He led the BBC’s campaign to allow the Lockerbie appeal to be televised live on the internet, which was a landmark in the wider campaign to have court hearings live on television.
“There were special circumstances to this,” says Bonnington. “First, there were no witnesses involved in the appeal hearing, and it was decided it was acceptable for the public to watch lawyers making their representations. Second, the hearing was held in another jurisdiction. This meant we could argue that the only way the Scottish public could have access to the trial was by seeing it broadcast,” he says.
Bonnington is not disappointed with the fact that the BBC’s lobbying led to the appeal hearing being televised only on the internet. As it was on the internet rather than on Scottish television, people all over the world had access to the hearing.
While he agrees that Lockerbie could spark a revision of the law regarding court proceedings being shown live on television, Bonnington does not think that the UK will become like the US in the near future, where trials with witnesses can be broadcast live. He asserts that public interest in televised trials is mainly limited to those such as the OJ Simpson trial, where the witnesses have fame or notoriety.
But Bonnington is clearly passionate about pushing Scottish media law as far as it will go in the BBC’s and the broadcasting industry’s favour. He is also secretary of the Scottish Media Lawyers Society (SMLS), an organisation that makes representations to the Scottish judiciary on behalf of media organisations. It is based on London’s Fleet Street Lawyers, a loose coalition of English media lawyers led by The Times legal manager Alasdair Brett.
In some respects, Bonnington’s group seems to have gone further in persuading the Scottish courts to work with the media than the Fleet Street Lawyers have managed. The SMLS has been able to set up an email notification system for contempt of court orders so that all the relevant media lawyers know about them within 48 hours. The Fleet Street Lawyers are still working on this, and still find their organisations at risk of being in contempt of court because the order was sent to a central fax number somewhere in the office and ended up in the bin.
But although Bonnington thinks that the Scottish system is more progressive, he admits that English media law is developing faster, particularly in areas such as privacy.
“England’s bigger and there are a lot more media organisations, so there have been more cases in England than in Scotland,” he says. “Nothing like the Naomi Campbell privacy case has happened in Scotland yet and we haven’t had a chance to test this developing area of law.”
Not all of BBC Scotland’s legal requirements involve media law and litigation, however. Bonnington is part of a team of two and there is no intellectual property (IP) or property capability in-house. Bonnington instead turns to the BBC legal team in London, which has more than 100 lawyers dedicated to IP.
But he has to look outside for property advice. BBC Scotland is investing heavily in property at the moment. Last November, for example, a new broadcasting centre opened in Aberdeen to replace the original Aberdeen base, Beechgrove House. At the beginning of this year, the BBC started transferring its Edinburgh operation from Queen Street to new premises next to the Holyrood Parliament. The corporation is also developing a new headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow.
Bonnington dropped BBC Scotland’s former main adviser McGrigor Donald from its panel last year for handling a case which resulted in the corporation being lumped with Scotland’s highest ever libel payout. Because he no longer uses McGrigors and due to the corporation’s property requirements, Bonnington is currently reviewing his panel of lawyers. He is confident that he will retain his main advisers – Burness and Maclay Murray & Spens – but says he still needs at least one more firm.
“We’re looking for expertise in a number of areas,” he explains. “We don’t have a property law capability in-house and lately there’s been a lot of property work. We always look for Court of Session experience and a firm that has expertise in defamation litigation. This naturally paints a picture of a bigger firm.”
Bonnington admits that most of the big firms in Scotland could fit his bill. He has most trouble finding advocates (Scottish barristers) to work for him, he says. “The problem in Scotland is that we have a very small libel bar and no real specialist libel chambers, so it’s hard to get advocates at short notice, especially the good ones.
There’s a shortage of advocates who are good at media work. There are only a few, and they’re all good at other things as well so they tend to always be booked up,” he reveals. “We’ll often need advocates at short notice as we often have to deal with broadcast issues by the next morning if someone’s attempting to injunct us or something.”
Bonnington has just passed an exam to become a solicitor-advocate. But he cannot practice as one yet, as he was actually due to be sworn in on the very day that he was broadcasting on the Lockerbie verdict at Camp Zeist.
“Unfortunately, I missed my day of ceremony, as I was standing in the freezing cold in an obscure part of the Netherlands waiting to give a report to the cameras,” he says.
It seems that Bonnington’s 15 minutes were not all that they promised.
Head of legal
|Head of legal||Alistair Bonnington|
|Reporting to||Controller of BBC Scotland John McCormick|
|Main location for lawyers||Glasgow|
|Main law firms||Burness and Maclay Murray & Spens|