Jacko film libel action leaves lots of costs and no winners

Ex-bodyguard and Channel 4 both claim victory in no-win-no-fee case, reports Matthew Bell

The first anniversary of Michael Jackson's death came and went on Friday with scarcely a shrug from the mainstream media.

There was a new conspiracy allegation from Jackson's sister, La Toya, and some talk that Wacko was, financially at least, rather better off dead. But the pop king's ghost would undoubtedly have loomed rather larger over the news cycle had the case brought by Jackson's former bodyguard, Matt Fiddes, against Channel 4 not been dropped on Monday, depriving the tabloids of what promised to be a colourful High Court drama.

The case centred on a Channel 4 documentary called The Jacksons Are Coming which chronicled the bizarre events of summer 2008 when it appeared that members of the Jackson family were house-hunting in North Devon. No sooner had the programme aired then Channel 4 found itself with a libel action brought by Fiddes. He had featured prominently in the film, shepherding Tito Jackson, Michael's brother, round Devon, and was unhappy with its representation of him. He accused producers of faking scenes to cast him as the villain.

By Monday, when Fiddes dropped his action, the case had dragged on for 19 months, leaving each party with a legal bill of more than £1.7m.

Both claimed a moral victory, with the broadcaster decrying Britain's libel laws, and the "no win no fee" conditional fee agreements (CFAs) which enable the public to bring costly actions against media groups. For Fiddes's part, he was happy that Channel 4 had accepted that he had not sold stories about the Jacksons to the press, which his lawyer says was central to his complaint.

There are no winners from this case: each party has been left with a hefty legal bill and has had to concede on certain points. Each party has left proceedings lamenting the state of Britain's libel laws: on the one hand, a private individual who claims his reputation was unfairly demolished by the media's representation of him, and on the other, a team of independent film-makers who say their time and money has been wasted and their freedom of expression threatened by a process that is stacked against them.

Outside the High Hourt, the head of Channel 4, Julian Bellamy, said he would always defend his programme makers "in the face of unjustified and scurrilous allegations". Yet the allegations of fakery must have struck a raw nerve: the production company behind the film was Studio Lambert, set up by Stephen Lambert in 2008 after he quit RDF Media the previous year over the fakery scandal surrounding A Year with the Queen, the film made for the BBC that cost the scalp of Peter Fincham, controller of BBC1.

With Monday's agreement there is no longer any suggestion that the film-makers were involved in fakery, and Lambert and Jane Preston, who narrated the film, have made no apologies. Those who saw the film recall it was rather less sensational than its billing. Far from containing scenes of Michael Jackson arriving by helicopter at Devon farmhouses to be greeted by fawning estate agents – no doubt what Channel 4 was hoping for when it commissioned Studio Lambert – the end result showed a rather forlorn Tito and his mother being driven round among indifferent locals.

Fiddes says he and Tito cooked up the idea to promote Tito's profile and a forthcoming single. This could explain why the Jacksons chose Devon to "settle", which is where Fiddes works as a martial arts coach. His connection with the Jacksons dates back to 1998, when he was introduced to Michael Jackson via Uri Geller, a client. He claims he soon became friends with Jackson, and became an unofficial bodyguard during his visits to the UK.

A week before the broadcast, Fiddes was told that the film showed him in an unfavourable light, and he reached for his lawyers. He told this newspaper that the film brought him hostility from neighbours, and that he has suffered from reactive depression as a result. "I've been through hell," he says, "I'm just relieved it's over." He says legal action was the only way to clear his name.

Channel 4 sees the case as an example of the injustice of CFAs, which place the burden of proof on the defendant. "This illustrates the chilling effect that exorbitant legal costs CFA-funded libel claims can have on broadcasters' freedom of expression," said Bellamy. "The claim was flawed from the outset."

Many questions will remain permanently unanswered with the closing of the case. The broadcaster has the support of high-end insurers Hiscox, which offers libel cover. On Fiddes's side, it is unclear how much of his legal bill he will have to pay given the equivocal outcome. But if he is obliged to pay the balance, it may encourage future claimants to think twice before taking action.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Account Manager / Sales Account Manager / Recruitment Account Manager

£25k Basic (DOE) – (£30k year 1 OTE) : Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright A...

Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

£20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

Trend Writer / Copywriter

£25 - 30k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Trend Writer / Copywriter: Retail, Design and...

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

‘We knew he was something special’

Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York