Nigella drugs smear backfires on Saatchi

Isleworth Crown Court was, orginally, hearing a fraud case relating to the spending of Lawson and Saatchi's personal assistants, the Grillo sisters. Today it was transformed into the high profile celebrity case normally played out in the High Court as Nigella (aka head of 'Team Cupcake') took to the stand.

She was, one would have thought, meant to be giving evidence relating to the actions of the sisters Grillo and their allegedly fraudulent activity, but no. Today was all about a face off with a smear campaign that has been woven into the proceedings and turned (temporarily, as Mediabeak is sure the judge will restore order) what should have been a grilling of the Grillos into a trial by media about whether Nigella was indeed, as suggested and then limply retracted by Charles Saatchi, a coke head and habitual drug user who had paid off the Grillo's to keep quiet about her cake use.

To the extent there may have been an agenda by either Saatchi or the Grillos or both to smear Nigella to defend their respective allegations about throat grabbing and money grabbing, Nigella today took control over the story. Knowing she was going to be today's lead story and tomorrow's front page (again), she embraced the media storm - alleged to have been set up by a dirty little PR campaign to smear her name (not that one would associate Saatchi with this sort of PR - but Nigella gave testimony in this regard) - and has ensured that her soundbites got heard. While various media throw in reference to her 'trembling' voice, viewed as a whole, her performance was a blinder. Not only did she stand firm (literally with hands on hips) but she also gave Grillo's brief, Anthony Metzer QC a good run for his money and showed she was not going to let some opportunistic quips on his part derail her mission and message. Metzer's ill judged attempt at sincerity when questioning about the death of her former husband, John Diamond, backfired big time: Metzer - 'I'll try to be tactful' (smile) Lawson - 'You don't need to be tactful about death. You were smiling when you said that. It was flippant' [Metzer 0: Lawson 1].

In terms of the real trial, it became a virtually irrelevant sideshow as the court and media agenda was hijacked by the war of words between Saatchi and Nigella. Does any of this help the legal process in the current case? No. At best and being generous to the intent of the defence team, it may have been designed to discredit Nigella's evidence and provide an excuse and explanation for the Grillo's spending. In this regard it backfired in that her heartfelt disappointment over the Grillo's abuse of her friendship and trust as well as a neat comment about the settings of their 'moral compass' will have not landed as intended by the defence. What, as Nigella referred to and was the reason for her deciding to tackle the attempt to smear her head on, actually was at play today was - it would appear - an orchestrated attempt to cause her public humiliation and pain.

It is never wise to seek to interfere or, as appears to be the case here, use predictable media interest to interfere with or add a different dimension to legal proceedings. All this will achieve is risk undermining the administration of justice and the focus of the jury in the actual case (to which a big contempt of court alarm bell risks being rung).

The smear: 'Stories' appear about Nigella's alleged drug habit, then Saatchi (who is alleged to have orchestrated these and commented in his 'off her face on drugs' email in this regard) gives testimony that seems to retract this and this leaves the stage set for Nigella having to give testimony to defend her honour rather than focus on the facts of the case itself.

The turnaround: Whether Saatchi or the Grillos are behind the attempt to make themselves look not so bad at the expense of Nigella, both parties have underestimated the public popularity and sympathy factor. As is public knowledge and front page material, Saatchi got off to a bad start:

..then came the stitch up...

Tomorrow's front pages will provide updated scores but in addition to Mediabeak's earlier point about not seeking to mess with or hijack legal process for trial by media purposes, the other learning here if you try to make someone who (as evidenced today) is not foolish look a fool (or coke head) you are not going to fool public perception and you will be the one whose message gets choked.

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