Grillos cleared, Nigella smeared but the real crime was the process and PR that allowed this to happen

I'm happy to pin a view on this. I think the right result and correct verdict - in light of all the circumstances - was arrived at today. The jury had a tough decision and the judge had to navigate this trial through a media storm that detracted from the alleged crime being tried and focused the attention on a witness who was as much on trial as the defendants. Ultimately though one has to ask the question as to whether it should actually, to some extent, be the legal process that should be on trial here.

How did this case ever make it to court? how come people more qualified than the average observer couldn't see through the claim of fraud (misusing Saatchi's credit card) and defence (because Nigella said it was ok) with the convenient common peg - because she was allegedly on drugs.

This case is remarkable insofar as those in court as defendants and key witness were neither the victim nor the perpetrator of the actual crime. Rather, they were the victims of an abuse of legal process to get the drug allegations out in the public domain without them being blatantly defamatory.

Nigella made a very valid point today - what protection is there for witnesses (ok she is very high profile and can hire very clever and expensive people to help her BUT the same principle and point is true in general) in situations such as this? the legal process uses witnesses for its own purpose but does it pay proper and sufficient regard to the person and their life that lies beneath the testimony they provide?

As to the Grillos, they have spent an obscene amount of money and enjoyed lavish luxuries but as emerged during the trial, what they enjoyed and spent was not inconsistent with the lifestyle and spending of the household they were so closely a part of. Leaving aside the drug taking smear angle, which I will deal with, their case is a simple one - they were part of a ridiculously high spending household and were living a lifestyle as lavish but not inconsistent with that of the household.

From the evidence coming out of their trial there is no proof that the Grillos sought to conceal their spending - the shoes they bought, the holidays, the spa treatments, the taxis etc - all were on a credit card and details of what was spent on that card (or cards) would have been apparent from the statements for the card account. Here we had the interesting moment of tension and realisation in court that the accountants for Mr Saatchi did process payments on the card accounts and indeed arrange for the authorisation of payment but they did, conveniently though not necessarily surprisingly (for that was not within their job description) scrutinise what exactly was being spent on the credit card. What seems to be the case and may have had some bearing on the verdict is that to the extent the Grillos spent large amounts of money, beyond not drawing it to the attention of their employers, they did not seek (as far as was ascertained in the proceedings) to conceal it. Nor did they, it seems, spend or use or obtain monies with a view to obtain or use these monies in a way that was fraudulent within the true sense of that meaning. To the extent their spending may not have been consensual it was not concealed.

Nevertheless, and this was not lost on the jury, if someone was going to fraudulently misuse a credit card or abstract monies, it is not very likely they would do it by spending on a card that would be (capable of even if it was in reality not done) scrutinised and reviewed by an accountant/accounts department and have (as credit cards do) very specific itemised accounts of spending. In the context of both the household's general spending and the spending seemingly granted to the Grillos - and taking into account the time period (5 years or so) over which the spending took place - would calling the police and seeking to push a file to the CPS be the first port of call? More likely would be that, having ascertained that trusted employees had been spending (even more) than one thought they might be, one would have that conversation with them and seek to resolve it. As came out in evidence, the Grillos did issue an apologetic email but the terms offered by Saatchi for resolving the issue accompanied with a threat to 'hunt them down' did not diffuse the situation.

After the verdict was delivered media reports suggest that Nigella was 'disappointed but not surprised' at the outcome. Come on! Here is where my sympathy for 'Team Cupcake' steps to one side (and message to Cameron - get better PR advice). Why is Nigella disappointed at the verdict? it's ok coming from her position not to be surprised but 'disappointed' is not so clever as this suggests she agreed with the Grillos having been charged and IF that is the case this means that she must believe their spending was excessive and unauthorised to the extent of it being fraudulent. This relies on her NOT having had the drugs smear suggestion which means she must be very confident on this point. This throws up the mirrored point in that to the extent Nigella's (trial by media) drugs defence stacks up, it means the Grillos' defence that they were able to spend large amounts as they turned a blind eye to Nigella's drugs use has to fall down. The difficulty here is that the jury has today delivered its verdict that the Grillos are not guilty of fraud and what was (on the face of it) the key evidence here - the fact that their spending was allowed as an offset to covering off drugs use. Here we have a real difficulty - the defence re the Grillos has stuck to the extent they have been found not guilty but that verdict relies on the belief that Nigella had a drugs habit going on. While this alleged drugs habit was dragged across court and the world's media it was never proved and no one gave evidence that Nigella had actually been seen taking drugs.

We are faced with three key points:

(1) If and to the extent that Nigella did allow the Grillos to spend what they wanted on Saatchi's credit card (which in the context of the evidence would not be implausible) why should she be disappointed that they had not been brought to book (or indeed found guilty) for abusing their privilege in terms of use of the credit card IF she had indeed allowed them to do so to cover up her 'drug habit'. So this does pose an issue - if Nigella truly believed the Grillos were taking advantage to the extent of being fraudulent in terms of credit card spending then she can't (surely) have encouraged or condoned their doing so - if, as the evidence in court heard, it was for the purposes of covering up her drug use.

(2) If Nigella had suspected the Grillos would use her 'alleged' drug use as a defence then, in any case, she would not have risked this happening from a PR or a legal perspective and not been supportive of the case being brought in the first place.

(3)  So how did this case get to court and for what purpose? Herein lies the mystery and probing question for the CPS (who should take cases on basis of there being a 'reasonable prospect' of conviction.) To distill the case:

  • A PA as then joined by her sister, spent big amounts on a credit card(s), the transactions on which were all traceable.
  • Within a high spending, lavish household the two sisters both had jobs that required, permitted and enabled them to spend large sums of money.
  • They were allowed to spend on personal items and indulge in luxuries (hotels, taxis tec) as a question of fact (though the question of degree may be questionable).
  • The accountants did not scrutinise line items and individual purchases on accounts.
  • Between monies spent and potential for scrutiny there appeared to be no concealment.
  • So we have lots of spending but nothing that legally seems to prevent it (other than credit card misuse if the name etc on card did not match up to the person using etc).

In relation to all the points there does not appear to be an obvious or satisfactory answer.

So what are the outstanding points?

  • Someone pushed this case in the direction of the police and CPS but why?
  • Would the Grillos like any media heat or a lawsuit given the lifestyle they enjoyed? No. Would they be able to be manipulated if all that were taken away from them? Yes.
  • If their bond was as close as reported with Nigella then why upset this?
  • To what extent have the Grillos been threatened?
  • To what extent have they been provided with (and had financed) defences that rely on the trashing of Nigella?

There is a sniff about this case

The excessive extent to which Nigella has been 'vilified' during the Grillo prosecution is as bizarre as it may seem - to a cynic - that the level of extremity does indeed signal a 360 job insofar as the negativity (or potential negativity) set up vis-a-vis Nigella is so extreme that it is actually there to flip sentiment and make one sorry for Nigella so, legal process aside, she wins the sympathy vote.

Abuse of process

If you want to attack someone or trash their reputation without the undue interference of legal and regulatory process, then the key is to use that process to do just that. The past weeks have seen numerous headlines (most using parentheses) about Nigella and alleged drug use but when it came to actual witness evidence none of them actually was able to confirm (on oath) that they had actually seen use of drugs.

What this case and the resultant media coverage smacks of is a deliberate campaign to set up a trial so one can unpack a range of issues and seek to defame someone without actually doing so due to the 'privilege' that attaches to court proceedings.

While we await the coming into force of the Defamation Act 2013 (and endure the existence of the old 1986 Act) there remains the ability to use the law to get around what is said in court due to the spectre of privilege - in other words, you can defame Nigella as much as you want (within reason and context) provided that all the negative things being said are done so within the course of active court proceedings..

What's said in proceedings in court remains privileged in terms of its application to that court. Basically it means - as has been all too prevalent in this case - is that what's said in court is and remains part of those court proceedings and relate to them.So in using the law as it stands, one can exploit it to leak a stream of defamatory comments relating to someone.

So where does this case take us?
  • The Grillos get to walk after what (public/individual sentiment aside) must have been a harrowing experience.
  • Nigella has been smeared - but will it ultimately prevent/deter her from existing and continued profile progression?
  • Saatchi has emerged as an embittered puppeteer 
  • The machinations of the media in response to what it has been fed highlight the problems rather than assist in getting to solutions.
What's needed?
  • A review of the laws that attach to the media in relation to cases such as these.
  • A harder line by the CPS re opportunistic cases aimed at unpacking non core issues.
  • Less game playing - or ability to abuse the system to play games.


Anonymous said...

The media treatment of the Grillos sehas been far harsher than that of Nigella. You would almost think the sisters were found guilty rather than innocent. Your article contributes to the media bias with it's conclusion that Nigella was smeared. This is despite her admitted drug taking and witnesses, who the jury found in favour of, giving evidence that suggests that she continued to take drugs on a regular basis. The only way this can be a smear is if the witnesses are lying. Do you have any evidence whatsoever that suggets that?

The reality is that Nigella as a rich media personality has been and continues ot be treated far better than an ordinary person would be or the Grillos have been.

mediabeak said...

Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that the Grillos have been victims here. I did highlight the issue there is in that for a jury to find the Grillos not guilty they would have to believe that their spending was not fraudulent. But for it to be non fraudulent didn't require Nigella to be 'Highgella'. The Grillos may well have (and the jury's verdict supports this) have seen 'evidence' of drug taking but that is all circumstantial - they or no one else placed a line of coke in Nigella's notstrils. My evidence is the lack of evidence of causality. Who's to say the drugs or drug taking evidence wasn't planted or being used by someone else in the household - we just do not know. What we do know and where I agree with you is that the Grillos have been used and (as I hope my comments highlight) this is a failing of the justice process. They are collateral in the spat between Saatchi and Nigella. The legal process has let them down.

Bilal Hassan said...

Thanks for writing such a good article, I stumbled onto your blog and read a few post. I like your style of writing...
Tobacco Machinery