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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager (EMEA) - City, London

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?