News Analysis: Limiting the harm of spoiler tactics

As Hello! celebrates not having to pay OK! for running spoiler pictures of the Douglas wedding, Alastair Ray looks at the implications for PROs and editors.

Five years after Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones exchanged wedding vows, Hello! has won a reprieve for spoiling OK!'s exclusive access to the ceremony. It has been an epic battle in which OK! - which stood to gain £1m in damages from its rival - is not the only loser.

'This is a case that should never have come to court and certainly should not have dragged on for five years,' says The Sun showbiz reporter Martel Maxwell-Stevenson. 'I would imagine that the Douglases privately regret taking it so far. It has done nothing for their popularity. Zeta Jones famously said that £1m (the couple were eventually awarded £14,500 from Hello!) was not very much to her - not a good lesson in PR.'

Nuts news editor Nick Soldinger says: 'As far as I can make out, it is the public image of Zeta Jones and her ageing hubby that have suffered.'

Media lawyers also say last week's decision by the Court of Appeal has implications for any PRO faced with a potential spoiler.

The judgement represents a return to 'business as usual' for editors wanting to put one over on their rivals. Edgar Forbes, senior lecturer in media law at Bournemouth Media School, says the law is now in tune with publishing practices. 'It reflects what goes on in the sector,' he claims.

Law reinterpreted

While the judges accepted that celebrities can make money from their private exploits, they cannot restrict which third parties have access to a story. 'Privacy can be commercialised but only for the benefit of the person (involved),' explains Chris Hutchings, media lawyer at M Law, which acted for Hello!.

Duncan Lamont, partner at Charles Russell, says it remains possible to stop spoilers if action is taken before photographs reach the public domain: 'If you hear a whisper that there are some pictures in the market, then you've got to rush out and make sure that they're not going to come into public viewing.'

The challenge for PROs is to decide how they should counsel clients in this environment. Max Clifford's advice would be to ensure that everyone gets something. 'I would have given Hello! a couple of really good pictures from the wedding, knowing that didn't take anything away from OK!, which had the whole thing - everyone wins,' he says.

Hutchings agrees: 'The publisher with the exclusive still gets the benefit of by far the best, broadest and most in-depth coverage. A spoiler will only have very scant coverage - a couple of pictures and a bit of information. If people want to read in-depth about a particular event they will go to the magazine that has the exclusive.'

The Outside Organisation head of press Stuart Bell says that once you know that a rival is trying to run a spoiler, you can try and negotiate.

'You can reason with the magazine and try and (get it to run) something else (until a later date),' he says. 'The publicist's problem is not to make sure that the cake is divided equally, but that everyone feels they are getting a slice.'

Nuts editor Phil Hilton takes a fairly relaxed view to some of the more extreme practices related to spoilers. 'If someone is going to hire a helicopter, there's not much you can do,' he says, adding that readers know the difference between a spoiler and a genuine interview. 'Readers can usually smell a spoiler and know when they are getting the real thing.

A spoiler is usually for editorial ego and not for readers.'

In the men's weekly market the exclusive element is about getting the celebrity into a studio or to a location for photographs. 'It's very unlikely that someone is going to double-cross you simply for one pay day,' Hilton notes.

Financial risk

James Herring, MD of Taylor Herring Communications, which handles PR for M Law, says the crucial issue in such circumstances is whether money is involved. Where this is the case, celebrities will want to ensure that the risk of a spoiler is borne by the publisher.

'The onus for protecting the exclusive needs to go back to the publication rather than the celebrity,' he adds.

Ultimately, he suggests, the increased security required to guarantee that a story retains its exclusivity may make some stars think twice about inviting newspapers or magazines into their lives in the first place: 'No one wants their guests being monstered by security. Security measures could seriously overshadow an event.'

Bernard Doherty, chief executive of music and entertainment PR agency LD Communications, suggests an alternative approach. He says the best way to avoid the problem is to take control by selling pictures in the 24 hours following an event.

'I would advise to not enter into deals with (the likes of) OK! and Hello! in any form. I'd handle it independently,' he says. 'It's best to create your own photos.' And Doherty warns that digital technology makes it harder to guarantee exclusivity. Even at Band Aid 20, for example, it took a special plea for people to put away their camera phones for the exclusive group shot that raised £60,000.

Lamont says that whatever the law decides, journalists will find a way to ensure that the paper with the exclusive does not have it all its own way.

He concludes: 'The result of all this may be to depress the value of these weddings. You may have a better chance of stopping anyone else taking illicit photographs, but people will think of ways to get around it. One of the things that we, as lawyers, are talking about is lookalikes. The ingenuity of "Fleet Street" should not be underestimated.'

FAMOUS PRESS SPOILERS

- In 1994, News of the World editor Piers Morgan made colleague Rebekah Wade dress up as a cleaner, go to the printing press and filch a copy of The Sunday Times, which had an exclusive serialisation of Jonathan Dimbleby's biography of Prince Charles.

- In 1998, OK! used pictures taken at the wedding of Gloria Hunniford, who had given the exclusive to Hello!

- In 1999, pictures of David and Victoria Beckham's wedding 'thrones' appeared in The Sun before OK!

- In 2003, David Beckham's book My Side generated a torrent of spoilers. The Sun had the official highlights but its rivals responded with a series of photo spreads and the testimony of former friends.

- Also in 2003, the book by Princess Diana's former butler Paul Burrell was a great story for red-tops and mid-market titles alike. However, once the Daily Mirror secured the exclusive serialisation, its rivals decided not to cover the story in protest.

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