Watch out Desmond, Benji the Binman is still after you
After helping defeat the Express, Pell tells Matthew Bell he's determined to get his man
Sunday 26 July 2009
When Tom Bower emerged from Court 13 on Thursday, he thanked members of the jury for "doing a great service to British journalism". Their rejection of Richard Desmond's libel case against him had ended the most fraught episode in his career as an unauthorised biographer of the rich and powerful.
But if it was a triumph for Bower it was doubly so for Benjamin Pell, or "Benji the binman" – the man once famous for fishing sensational stories out of bins. For him, the verdict struck a blow against his two greatest enemies, Express newspapers and Mr Justice Eady. Every day of the nine-day trial, Pell's eccentric, lanky figure could be seen in the back row of the public gallery, scribbling frantically. "I own the back row," he tells me jubilantly after the case. "Court 13 is not Eady's domain, it's my domain. I hope Eady is terrified of me. He should be."
For seven years, Pell has been monitoring Mr Justice Eady, sitting in on all his cases and forensically monitoring every judgment. Last week, three senior judges unanimously condemned Eady's decision to disallow certain evidence in the trial, a decision that was overruled in the Court of Appeal and described as "plainly wrong".
It's not the first time Mr Justice Eady has come under fire, although usually the criticism comes from journalists who say he is using his court to introduce a privacy law by the back door.
Pell's own judgement of the man is less than favourable. "He is dangerous and this trial proves what he is like. In an ideal world, he should resign. But we're stuck with him until 2017 when he retires."
One lawyer close to the case says the judge simply has a strong belief in the right to privacy. "If you are a judge, your world view will inevitably have some bearing on your judgments. Conceptually, Mr Justice Eady believes in privacy."
Since giving up his bin raids in 2001, Pell has dedicated himself to media law, spending every day at the Royal Courts of Justice. According to one lawyer, he is so well-versed in the intricacies of defamation law he often knows more than the lawyers and judges. Thin, ashen-faced and with a slight stoop, the 46-year-old could be an illustration of the Dickens character Krook, Bleak House's hoarder of legal documents who dies of spontaneous combustion. As he speaks, Pell can get so excited he looks as if he could explode at any minute.
But for all his idiosyncrasies, Pell is highly intelligent and could have had an illustrious career had he not flunked his exams after blowing £70,000 on a horse in the Derby the day before his finals in 1986. He eventually took a third class law degree from University College London and founded a cleaning company. But it was a large bag of confidential letters outside the bins of London estate agents EA Shaw that set him off on a more lucrative line, selling stories to papers.
For years, he would go out at night, dressed as a binman to fish through the rubbish of top law firms and talent agencies. He was rewarded with some big stories, notably those about Elton John's cash problems and Jonathan Aitken's misdemeanours. He was in constant demand from Sunday newspapers which would pay huge sums for his findings.
"I did my last bin raid in February 2001 because I was involved in [TV presenter] Jill Dando's murder case, and I had to go to the Old Bailey every day" he says, "I'm a completely different animal now."
If he was once invaluable to newspaper editors, he still remains useful. According to Pell, he encouraged Bower's defence team to appeal against Mr Justice Eady's decision to exclude a recording of a phone call between Desmond and Jafar Omid, the boss of the Pentagon hedge fund. Had the recording not been played – in which Desmond tells Omid he would be "the worst fucking enemy you will ever have" – the jury might well have found differently.
Pell's anger towards Express newspapers dates to 2002, when the Sunday Express ran a story accusing him of giving the IRA the names of Bloody Sunday soldiers. He was challenged by two reporters from the newspaper outside his synagogue on the Saturday before publication, and has been banned from it ever since. He sued and was paid £125,000 in an out-of-court settlement but is still fighting the paper's refusal to disclose evidence which he believes shows there was a conspiracy at the paper against him.
"I've been waiting for this litigation for the past two years. I've known that this is key. I want now to take proceedings against Desmond. I want to be reinstated to my synagogue and I want an apology."
Those who know Pell describe him as "extremely moral, according to his principles". He continues to live in Hendon with his parents and has no income except a £10 a week allowance from his father. He is described by one lawyer as "a brilliant outsider" who can afford to offend judges and barristers.
But one day, says Pell, he would like to become a lawyer. "I want to be snapped up by a big firm. I want them to say 'Benjamin rather than working against us, come and work for us.'"
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