Focus: Life after the verdict

Michael Jackson may find that the court of public opinion is a harsher judge than the jurors of Santa Maria. Mud sticks: just look at what happened to John Leslie and Michael Barrymore after they were cleared. But, says Christine Hamilton, who knows a thing or two about reputations won and lost, it is possible to bounce back...
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The Independent US

Michael Jackson won a battle in a court of law last week. But will he win the war in the court of public opinion? Having been acquitted by the jury on all counts, within minutes of the verdict cracks began to appear in the completeness of his victory. Not least because, while rejecting the specific allegations made by his unsavoury accusers in the court case, several jurors said on television they thought Jackson probably had abused boys on other occasions. As one put it: "I can't believe this man could sleep in the same bedroom for 365 straight days and not do something more than just watch television and eat popcorn."

Sometimes an operation can be a success but the patient dies - from "complications". Legal actions can be the same. They are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Jackson would not be the first high-profile litigant to discover that the only sure-fire winners in any legal battle are the lawyers. As many "celebrities" have painfully discovered, the costs of winning - or simply of being cleared of charges - can sometimes be as great as the costs of losing.

In 2003, John Leslie, the highly paid presenter of ITV's Good Morning, was swept away in a tsunami of tabloid frenzy following allegations of sexual assault. Unceremoniously sacked and cast into outer darkness, shortly afterwards the charges were withdrawn and he left court, in the words of the judge, "without a stain on his character". That was jurisprudentially correct, but the real world outside court is not quite so simple. Mud can stick. Leslie was not reinstated and he has struggled to rebuild his life as an actor. Meanwhile his then girlfriend, Abi Titmuss, is everywhere.

History is littered with similar examples. Michael Barrymore's TV work dried up after the death of a friend in his swimming pool after a party. Despite the vox pop that blamed Barrymore, an inquest recorded an open verdict. Barrymore limped away "technically innocent" but bankrupt and with his show-biz career on a life-support machine. Such disastrous vindications are not confined to showbusiness. Jeremy Thorpe never recovered from the Norman Scott affair.

Nevertheless, such situations are neither universal nor inevitable. Both the frankly guilty and the falsely accused can recover from disgrace and a catastrophic media-monstering.

Jonathan Aitken's Via Dolorosa took him from privilege and wealth to bankruptcy and prison, but he found it a path to God. Hugh Grant rebuffed the humiliation of his conviction for committing a lewd act in public with an LA hooker by doing the unthinkable and apologising. His film career does not seem to have suffered, and he is now linked with Jemima Khan. In both cases, frank public acceptance of guilt and doing penance acted as a purgative. The contrast with Jeffrey Archer is instructive.

The media's relationship with celebrities is ambivalent. There is just as much news value in raising a reputation from the dead as in assassinating it in the first place. It is all in a day's work for the tabloid editor, whose simple demands are novelty and extremes of colour and contrast. Consistency is no virtue if it gets in the way of a good story. One moment Associated Newspapers vilifies Carole Caplin as a Svengali closet adviser of Cherie Blair; the next it employs her as a columnist.

My husband Neil and I have ridden this rollercoaster for many years, experiencing the exhilaration of G forces both on the rapid rise and the precipitous plunge. After losing first his ministerial post, his seat and then a disastrous libel action against Mohamed al-Fayed, Neil, too, was plunged into bankruptcy.

With few exceptions the press joyously put the boot in, slavering over our misfortunes. But we never looked back. The libel case proved to be the darkest hour before the dawn. We reinvented ourselves through television. The small screen allowed people to see us for themselves and make their own minds up about the sort of people we are. They were no longer dependent on seeing us refracted through a distorting prism of journalistic prejudice.

Perhaps our case is different, involving neither a disastrous vindication nor a purgative acceptance of guilt. We may not have satisfied a libel jury that Neil had never received illicit cash from Fayed, but we did convince the more rigorous Inland Revenue through a two-year investigation of our financial affairs going back to 1987. Now we are inundated with well-paid work and, within six months of Neil coming out of bankruptcy last year, bought a medieval manor house.

This would not have been possible without convincing millions of jurors in the court of public opinion that previous, jaundiced perceptions of us were wrong. We worked hard, closed our ears to columnists' carping criticism, coped uncomplainingly with our very public problems, and used our talents to build a new life.

It was not easy coping publicly with insults and unfounded criticism. But, ultimately, we knew the fickleness of both media and public opinion. We could never satisfy believers in no smoke without fire or name-callers determined to disparage us. We simply ignored them, carried on being ourselves and used the media to rebuild just as the media had used us to destroy.

Michael Jackson should not find it too hard to get his life back into order. Like us when we lost our political jobs, he just needs to implement an economical shopping policy and must rename his home "Never Again Land".

Not guilty: cleared of all charges, but condemned anyway

Jeremy Thorpe

In 1976, Jeremy Thorpe was forced to resign the Liberal Party leadership after claims of a gay relationship with Norman Scott, who claimed Thorpe had tried to murder him at the end of their affair. In the subsequent court case, Thorpe was acquitted of conspiracy to murder. But his career was over, and he lost his parliamentary seat at the 1979 election. Soon after, he developed Parkinson's disease and retired from public life.

Michael Barrymore

Once Britain's highest-paid entertainer,Barrymore, 52, fled in panic when the body of a party guest, Stuart Lubbock, was found in his swimming pool. An open verdict was recorded at the inquest, and a £100m damages suit dropped when the star was declared bankrupt. A West End show flopped, and last year his possessions were seized to pay a £1.4m tax bill. He now lives in New Zealand.

John Leslie

After Ulrika Jonsson told in her autobiography, in 2002, of an incident involving an unnamed man, Leslie faced charges of sexual assault. He was sacked from his job on ITV's This Morning but the charges were dropped before the trial. At 40, he has not been reinstated and is trying to find work as an actor. He is on his own now, and his adored dog is dying. Leslie's former girlfriend, Abi Titmuss, is said to have made £1m since their break-up.

Fatty Arbuckle

Silent movie star Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle was arrested in 1921 for the sexual assault and manslaughter of an actress at a party in San Francisco. His films were withdrawn and Paramount cancelled his contract. Arbuckle was acquitted at his third trial, but the press demonised him, studios shunned him, and he was hounded by creditors. He died aged 46, broke and drunk, in 1933.

Kobe Bryant

The basketball star was a clean-cut favourite with fans and advertisers until he was accused in 2003 of raping a hotel worker in Colorado. The LA Lakers player denied the charge. The case was dropped the day before the trial, but the dirt stuck. He has even been blamed for the Lakers' recent run of bad luck. In March, Bryant settled a civil lawsuit with the woman, but the terms were not disclosed. Hours later, the Lakers lost again.

O J Simpson

Sportsman-turned-screen actor Simpson was found not guilty of the murder of his wife and her friend in 1994. But later, a civil court found Simpson liable for the deaths and ordered him to pay $33.5m in damages. The money was never paid because Simpson, once worth $10m, was said to be broke. His estate was auctioned for less than $4m, friends melted away, and his golf club froze him out.

Guilty: but so what?

John Gielgud

When John Gielgud was arrested in 1953 for homosexual importuning, he pleaded guilty and was fined £10. After press coverage of the trial he was afraid of the reaction of the audience when he next appeared on stage, but the play (N C Hunter's A Day by the Sea) was halted by a standing ovation when the actor made his entrance. Gielgud was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1977. He won an Oscar in 1981 for Arthur and a Bafta fellowship award for his lifetime contribution to showbusiness in 1992. In 1994 the Globe Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, was renamed the Gielgud Theatre. He died in 2000, much loved and respected.

Hugh Grant

In 1995, in a California court, Hugh Grant pleaded no contest to charges of lewd behaviour with the prostitute Divine Brown on Hollywood's Sunset Strip. He was fined $1,180, placed on two years' probation and obliged to attend an Aids education programme. But then he did the unthinkable, and apologised: "I did a bad thing, and there you have it." Grant's then girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley, forgave him. He went on to appear in 15 films, including the hugely successful Bridget Jones's Diary and Love Actually. He and Hurley have split but remain friends. Grant is now romantically involved with Jemima Khan.

Martha Stewart

An American mixture of Nigella Lawson and Mother Teresa, Stewart was charged with illegal share dealing and found guilty of obstruction of justice last year. By the time she left prison in March, by private jet, her company's share value had trebled. Advertisers flocked back to her magazine. She will spend the next five months under house arrest, shackled by an electronic ankle bracelet, but will continue to draw her $900,000 salary. Starring roles in two TV shows are mooted, as is a new range in furnishings, frozen meals or clothing. Her prison memoirs are likely to fetch $5m.

Jonathan Aitken

The high-flying Tory MP lied under oath during a 1997 libel case and persuaded his daughter to sign a false witness statement. Found guilty of perjury, his prison sentence was partly served in high-security Belmarsh. On hearing the sentence his butler "was so overcome he had to lie down". But during his internment, Aitken found God, love and new friends. At his wedding two years ago the congregation included six former cabinet ministers and six ex-cons. He has since published a book of psalms and an autobiography. Aitken now lives a blameless married life in his new London flat and drives a car given to him by the Formula One boss Frank Williams.

Katy Guest