Northern & Shell’s further incursion into the newspaper market is keeping the publisher’s head of legal affairs at the cutting edge of intellectual property law. Naomi Rovnick reports

The average newspaper lawyer sits at his or her desk all day fending off libel claims from hacked-off celebrities. Maninder Gill does this occasionally, but unlike many of his breed, the company secretary of Northern & Shell also spends a lot of time starting legal battles on behalf of his chairman, Richard Desmond.

Northern & Shell is constantly embroiled in intellectual property (IP) claims, commercial battles and regulatory spats with competitors. In April, Gill’s legal team successfully sued Hello!, the rival of Northern & Shell’s OK! Magazine, after it took unauthorised pictures of Catherine Zeta Jones’ and Michael Douglas’s wedding, which were promised exclusively to OK!

Gill recently went to Denmark to sue a publishing company attempting to start a magazine similar to OK! entitled Okay. (The plans for this publication are understood to have since gone off the boil.) He has also just won a settlement in Canada for the return of the Rupert the Bear image rights to Express Newspapers.

Currently, Northern & Shell is pursuing a counter-claim to proprietor of The Daily Telegraph Conrad Black’s allegations that Northern & Shell newspaper the Sunday Express libelled him and his paper. The two publishers are understood to be heading towards mediation.

“We’re always active in that we’ve got a board that’s willing to invest time and money in going to court where we believe we’re right and there’s a principle at stake,” says Gill. “I’m quite privileged, because I have the opportunity to fight the cases that I believe are worth fighting. We’re not reluctant to take things all the way.”

Gill’s legal department, then, is not a publishing house’s usual collection of practitioners. It is a legal arsenal, created and bankrolled by Desmond, to protect Northern & Shell’s brands and to put the wind up his rivals.

Often, the target is Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard. Desmond once remarked that it was his “life’s challenge to take Associated on”. (The Times, 4 April 2003).

Desmond is currently planning to launch a London evening freesheet as a direct competitor to the Evening Standard. Earlier this year, the editor of the planned newspaper Nick Ferrari provocatively told a television news programme that the new product would be called the Evening Mail. Associated objected to this proposal on grounds of passing off, so Northern & Shell took the battle all the way to the High Court. This resulted in Northern & Shell fighting and losing the passing off case against Associated in June, resulting in around £700,000 in legal fees. Many other publishers would have simply decided to call the paper something else. An alternative title is currently being debated.

In the run-up to this case Gill took Associated to the Office of Fair Trading, protesting at the competitor’s alleged monopoly on distributing free papers in train and tube stations.

Following the Hello! victory, Gill’s team tried to take Associated to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), even though the body does not handle disputes between publishers, when the Evening Standard ran a headline suggesting that Zeta Jones had lost the case.

Gill admits that taking this to the PCC was something of a mistake. “We were genuinely aggrieved by what we saw as substantially inaccurate reporting of the case by the Evening Standard and we did want to pursue it. We then realised the PCC will not look at disputes between its members,” he says.

Surprisingly for such an active company secretary, Gill’s external legal spend is low. Northern & Shell pays out around £2m a year to its informal panel of law firms. Ashurst Morris Crisp, instructed on the Evening Mail case, and Addleshaw Goddard, which acted in the Hello! case, were this year’s biggest earners. At the bar, Gill likes to instruct 5 Raymond Buildings member David Sherborne, who acted as junior to his former head of chambers Michael Tugendhat on the Hello! case, before Tugendhat became a High Court judge.

Although he gets involved in so many fights, Gill’s personality is in the sharpest possible contrast to that of his boss’s public face. While Desmond has been reported to throw chairs around the room when he is cross, Gill prides himself on fighting his company’s battles with an even temper. He says he likes Harvey Kass, his counterpart at Associated, a lot. He has also maintained warm relations with Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, the claimant defamation firm where he trained and the author of many of the libel claims that land on his desk.

As for Desmond’s public image, Gill disagrees strongly with the characterisation of his chairman. When Northern & Shell bought Express Newspapers in 2000, sections of the national press quickly seized on the adult titles Desmond owned (and still does), such as Asian Babes, labelling him a pornographer. Desmond was portrayed as an immoral, chair throwing, cigar chomping, eccentric megalomaniac. Northern & Shell was derided as an outsider and there was a lot of City comment about the company being too highly debt-funded at the time of the Express acquisition.

Gill admits that Desmond is a challenging boss. He says the chairman does have his foibles, such as requiring his butler to bring him a banana each day at 11am and 4pm, but chucking chairs around is not a regular occurrence. Northern & Shell has also cocked a snook at its critics. The company is now cash rich and turned a £20m profit on EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) of £45m in 2002.

The company is growing fast. Gill has just completed a licensing deal to launch a version of OK! in China, and the company is also in talks about publishing OK! titles in the US, Australia and India. There are also plans to expand the broadcasting division.

Constant litigation, as well as working on expanding the company, makes for an exciting (if not easy) life for Gill. “Is working here a white knuckle ride? That’s a feature of working for Richard Desmond – it’s never boring,” says Gill. “We’re always looking at what we can do tomorrow and how to improve the way we’re doing things today. There’s no resting on our laurels and expecting a nice, sedate life.”

Perhaps because he requires so much energy to keep up with his boss, Gill is a sporty chap. He is not a tough guy, although he did box in his youth, but he plays football and does pilates. And it is Desmond who motivates him to keep fit.

“Richard is super-fit and goes to the gym three times a week at 6.30am. The rest of us are encouraged to exercise and eat well,” says Gill. “It’s still only the chairman who is served a banana, though.”

Maninder Gill
Group secretary
Northern & Shell

Organisation Northern & Shell
Sector Media
Revenue £387m
Total employees 1,200
Legal capability Eight lawyers and 15 night lawyers
Head of legal affairs Group secretary Maninder Gill
Reporting to Chairman Richard Desmond
Main law firms Addleshaw Goddard, Alexander Johnson, Ashurst Morris Crisp, Davenport Lyons, Finers Stephens Innocent, Lewis Silkin, Linklaters, Rosenblatt, SJ Berwin and Wiggin & Co