William Cash says the guests were as good as the champagne when Charlotte Harris was welcomed into the fold
According to Cassio in Shakespeare’s Othello, a public reputation in 16th century Venice is the ‘immortal part’ of mankind and ‘the longest-living and truest part’ of his character. When Cassio sniffs that what remains is ‘bestial’, Iago merely snarls that he was bleating as if he had been physically attacked: ‘There is more sense in that than in reputation. Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.’
The latter line would certainly not be endorsed by Kingsley Napley’s new Media and Reputation Unit which was launched last week by former Mishcon partner Charlotte Harris in the Lecture Hall of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors on George Street.
It is not every day that a law firm throws such a public welcome party to a new partner, with guest speakers including former Home Secretary Jack Straw and David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, as well as Hugh Tomlinson QC, head of the Matrix Chambers. But the poaching of Charlotte Harris from Mishcon was a pretty public move and anybody who has worked with Charlotte knows that she is not one to lurk in the shadows.
Ever since Leveson Charlotte Harris has played a leading role on the public stage as one of the most effective and high-profile media and privacy lawyers working in London today. Since so many of her clients are themselves public figures with reputations they deeply care about, it is hardly surprising that the guest list for Harris’s party was so dynamic. With a range of exotic cocktails, champagne and canapés served by the Roux restaurant next door, it felt the most un-corporate of launches.
Together with actor Hugh Grant, Harris was one of the most public faces of Hacked Off which succeeded in getting many significant changes to the way the UK press is held to account, post Leveson. She has represented a wide range of celebrities, high net worths and leading business figures.
The rise of the media lawyer today has coincided with the rise of social media and the fact that whereas twenty years ago a bad story might ruin one’s breakfast, today all the world is a vast electronic press library – open to all.
‘Today, clients are more savvy as they face the challenges of media exposure to avoid a crisis, to manage their image and in the glare of the spotlight,’ says Harris.
The problem for public figures or HNWs who suddenly find themselves embroiled in a media scandal or have their reputation trashed online is that thanks to the internet there is not just one Iago out there trying to ruin your life: there are often thousands of Iagos.
These days you can’t simply challenge a Twitter user or a blogger who is causing you online trouble with a duel in the back-streets of Venice to restore honour. The best chance you have is to employ a specialist firm like Kingsley Napley alongside an internet media reputation specialist firm such as Digitalis Reputation (represented by Charlie Bain who told me at the party that I was the first person he ever interviewed as a student journalist back in the 1990s).
A firm like Digitalis, working along aside a lawyer like Charlotte, can prove a deadly effective combination. Both not only know international media law but also know how to get media slander and defamation erased from the web, as well as getting legal damages, an apology and your reputation restored.
Moreover, because Charlotte knows the legal heads of all the news and media organisations, she can ‘make things happen’ much more effectively with a phone call or email than having to launch an expensive and unpredictable legal court battle. So an HNW is often saving tens of thousands by being able to tap into her personal network built up over a decade.
Her unit launch included guests like the affable but street smart Marcus Partington, head of legal at the Daily Mirror, who has been with the paper since almost before the web was born. There was also Janet Youngson from The Independent and Nicole Patterson from Express Newspapers.
Then there were journalists themselves such as Rob Mendick of the Sunday Telegraph, Fiona Hamilton, crime correspondent of The Times, and Nick Davies of The Guardian, the left-leaning journalist most responsible for many of the allegations that led the media hacking trials.
The legal talent Angus McBride was also at the party as he works – where else? – at Kingsley Napley, in their criminal law department. Earlier this year, Kingsley Napley hired DLA Piper white-collar-crime partner Jo Rickards who represented former News of the World editor Andy Coulson in the phone hacking trial.
The rise in importance of media and reputation units within leading law firms – and not just those with well known criminal departments – is one of the big developments of the last five years. Although Harris adds glitz, influence and legal weight to Kingsley Napley, the firm already had a strong team in Gerard Cukier and Ryan Mowat.
That Harris – along with her colleague Dr Rosa Malley who also came with her from Mishcon – has succeeded in setting up the new unit with such punch is a sign that having a good media and reputation lawyer (read ‘crisis management’) is now as important as having a divorce lawyer or criminal lawyer on your speed dial.
One of the more interesting aspects of the launch was the number of fellow leading privacy lawyers from rival law firms with well established media and reputation units.That Harris was able to bring such media lawyers as John Kelly (Harbottle & Lewis), Amber Melville-Brown (Withers), Graham Atkins and Mark Thomson (Atkins Thomson) and Gideon Benaim (Michael Simkins), says a lot about Charlotte’s now reputation within the industry. There was also Spear’s 500 ‘QC royalty’ present in Heather Rogers and Desmond Brown.
‘Media has been very much on the firm’s wider agenda to join forces cross departmentally and launch our now strong unit,’ says Harris. ‘It seems to us that relationships and relationship building are one of the most effective tools for clients and lawyers alike. We desire good relationships with our colleagues-in-law (a much better thing than considering them to be competition) and wish to have an abundance mentality.
‘The press write a lot about criminal investigations, family proceedings, immigration issues and HNWs, and this has rather taken over from celebrity-based interest. This makes life extremely interesting – and frankly quite serious at times – so a real challenge’.
That Kingsley Napley were able to showcase their broadness of contacts (turbo-boosted by Charlotte) reveals how much being a good media lawyer really is about who you know as much as what you know.
Yes, merit does have quite a lot to do with it but Iago had a point in his put-down of Cassio. The truth is that most public figures who have failed to manage their reputation have failed because they have not had the right media team to help them. Media perception is all: truth or lies, let alone moral or media justice, are not always relevant.
Giving such splashy parties can be useful in unnerving the competition, like a novel launch where you have a panoply of Booker Prize winners drinking your prosecco. For the other lawyers in the Lecture Hall, as they glanced around the oak-panelled room, sipping Harris’s champagne and enjoying the Roux canapés, I can only imagine the experience of finding oneself at a rival’s party surrounded by quite so much legal and media fire-power – not to mention a former home secretary – would be a little discomforting. Perhaps that was half the point.