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Oliver Wright: Legal attack dogs who barked up wrong tree

  • @oliver_wright

Senior lawyers from the media attack dog Schillings were yesterday locked in an all-day meeting to discuss their next legal move in the case of their client CBT (now better known as Ryan Giggs). They should have been discussing the law of unintended consequences.

What began as a common-or-garden legal spat between a big newspaper group and a celebrity footballer a month ago has now snowballed into a pressing issue of constitutional and international importance. And whatever the end result, the reputational damage to the firm and its client is enormous.

Long before the Giggs affair spread across the internet, football terraces and, eventually, the front pages of newspapers, Schillings was making a lucrative business from exploiting European privacy laws to protect its wealthy and famous clients.

It found a sympathetic ear from judges who were being asked to rule between the rights of wealthy newspaper groups who wanted to exploit celebrity kiss-and-tell stories for commercial gain and the celebrities who argued for the privacy of their innocent wives and children to hide their own indiscretions. And so it must have seemed like business as usual when Schillings applied for an injunction against the Sun in the case of Giggs to prevent it from revealing the lurid details of an alleged affair.

Even when Giggs's name first cropped up on Twitter, Schillings still thought it was dealing with "tabloid tactics" to get the injunction lifted. How else, the lawyers asked, could the name have reached cyberspace if it hadn't come from somewhere very near the Sun's Wapping bunker?

But that was when the lawyers made their first mistake. Rather than ignore the tweets, Schillings acted the only way it knew how and went on the attack. The lawyers applied for, and were granted, an application to request that Twitter hand over details of the originators of the tweets, which they believed would incriminate the Sun. It was legally correct – but it was also the point where the unintended consequences kicked in.

Not only did it result in thousands more people tweeting and retweeting their client's name, but made it look like they were attempting to go after a rich newspaper group and members of the public.

An incorrect story at the weekend suggesting that lawyers for another footballer were attempting to bring criminal contempt of court charges (which could result in a two-year jail sentence) against the tweeters raised the temperature still further.

And then the Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming – who himself had got hold of the wrong end of the stick – raised the matter in Parliament under the guise of parliamentary privilege. Schillings's injunction was blown out of the water.

Yesterday, the law firm insisted it had never been its intention to try to legally gag (or prosecute) thousands of individual Twitter users. And to be fair, there is nothing to suggest that it has. But that doesn't matter any more.

The perception is that this battle is "Schillings vs the public" now and not "Schillings vs the nasty tabloid press". And that's not good for business.