On the ball

HarperCollins’s Simon Dowson-Collins loves sport so much he once went to a QPR game while he was still on a BBC shift. Alex Wade meets the fittest lawyer in publishing

All too many lawyers conform to type. Austere, dry and measured, unafraid of their intellects, loath to mingle with the masses (trainees, junior assistants, minor clients) lest their status be compromised. But there are a few who buck the trend, and Simon Dowson-Collins, director of legal affairs at publishers HarperCollins, is one of them.

I meet Dowson-Collins at the Energize Centre, a gym in Hammersmith round the corner from HarperCollins’ Fulham Palace Road office. He arrives by bike and proceeds to knock seven bells out of a boxing trainer at the gym. He is a fitness fanatic and is in excellent condition for a man approaching 40, although the curly locks of his early career went some time ago. Having barely broken sweat, Dowson-Collins hops on his bike and says he will see me back at the office. He is back at his desk, looking smooth and collected, in less time than it takes me to drive there.

Dowson-Collins joined HarperCollins in December 2001, after being headhunted from the BBC. He joined because he wanted to develop his career and experience what it was like to be part of a commercial organisation – somewhere, as he puts it, “where there’s a bottom line, in contrast to the BBC, where principle determines everything”. He heads a department with a total staff of 15, including three lawyers and nine contracts administrators and executives. He reports to chief executive officer Vicky Barnsley and chief operating officer John Bailey, with whom he says he has “an excellent relationship: they are utterly professional”.

The work handled by Dowson-Collins and his department embraces everything from contract law to litigation, employment to acquisitions and disposals, and, of course, pre-publication law. Dowson-Collins is an expert in this area, having spent just over five years in the BBC’s programme compliance department under veteran broadcast lawyer Glenn del Medico.

At the BBC, he was responsible for ensuring that programmes such as Have I Got News For You and They Think It’s All Over did not land the BBC or the production companies in libel territory. “I would sit in the gallery on recording night with Jimmy Mulville [a director of Hat Trick Productions, the makers of Have I got News For You], the producer and other BBC programme makers. I had to watch the show being recorded over a period of an hour and a half, and then let them know which bits I thought were problematic.” Surely it was fraught with all manner of difficulties? “These kind of satirical programmes are inherently risky,” he says. “If you look at one of the definitions of libel – holding someone up to scandal, ridicule or contempt – you could say that anyone simply mentioned on them might have a cause of action. It’s a question of assessing risk.”

Dowson-Collins well remembers his first night legalling Have I Got News For You. “Jimmy Mulville looked at me and said, ‘Ah, the new boy’. There was a lot of pressure, and always some heated debates before the final cut.”

At the BBC, he was also responsible for programmes in Northern Ireland, a notorious minefield for pre-publication lawyers, and once a week he would be on news duty for a 24-hour stint. As a former captain of football teams at school, university and at county level, he is nothing if not active, not the kind of man to be chained to a desk for 24 hours. So was it hard? “Not really,” he says. “I got used to receiving up to 60 calls a day, from 4.30 in the morning to midnight.” However, he admits that he did manage to complete one shift while at his beloved Queen’s Park Rangers. “The journalist who’d rung me said, ‘You sound like you’re at a football match’. I can’t remember if Rangers won or not, but I do recall moving away from the crowd so that we could discuss things properly,” he says.

Prior to the BBC, Dowson-Collins was a libel litigator with West End firm Davenport Lyons, which took over Wright Webb Syrett in March 1995. Although he qualified as a barrister in 1989, Dowson-Collins elected to become a solicitor four years later. At Wright Webb, he worked for the late, legendary Oscar Beuselinck, who, with Peter Carter-Ruck and Lord Goodman, represented something of a holy trinity among libel lawyers. Dowson-Collins remembers being interviewed by Beuselinck. “He asked me what he could do for me,” he recalls. “I said he could offer me a job. He said ‘Right’, then rang a fellow partner and sent me downstairs to see him. Before I went he said: ‘If he gives you a job, don’t praise me. If he doesn’t, don’t blame me. Now F**k off out of here.'”

If this was typical of Beuselinck’s abrasive style, so too was an attention to detail and belief in high standards that Dowson-Collins has never forgotten. “You couldn’t give Oscar any document with even the smallest mistake. I learnt a tremendous amount working with him.”

Dowson-Collins himself has less of the abrasiveness and more of the charm. A former colleague says: “He’s bright and very professional, but somehow manages to be down-to-earth at the same time. He also has a great sense of fun.”

No doubt he will have enjoyed one of HarperCollins’ recent books, by fellow Staines inhabitant Ali G. Other books on the shelves in his office are more cerebral, but often Dowson-Collins finds himself involved in the contractual negotiations with authors and their agents rather than pre-publication advice, much of which is provided by libel chambers 5 Raymond Buildings. He has worked on the contract for David Beckham’s forthcoming autobiography, as well as a compromise agreement by which HarperCollins and Jeffrey Archer parted company. This he is unable to discuss, owing to confidentiality undertakings, but he will say that there was “a great deal of negotiation to get it right”. For a moment, a look of pride crosses his face, but Dowson-Collins will say no more, on or off the record.

Dowson-Collins says that he has no plans to move on, even if the headhunters come knocking again. “Why would I want to move?” he says. “HarperCollins is a fantastic place to work. I intend to stay as long as I keep enjoying it.”

In the immediate future, there is the small matter of Queen’s Park Rangers’ bid for promotion to Division One. Dowson-Collins fondly recalls a summer spent training with the Queen’s Park Rangers youth team, and loves his trips to Loftus Road. He waves his tickets for the second semi-final playoff at home to Oldham with unabashed enthusiasm. One thing’s for sure: if QPR reach the playoff final at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff, publishing’s fittest lawyer will be there.
Simon Dowson-Collins