’I always advise my clients to tape interviews,’ John Stonborough
warns his new consultant legal adviser David Williams as we prepare for
It is joke of course, part of Stonborough’s larger than life
But just as he epitomises the jovial PR man, Williams proves to be every
inch the lawyer: considered, concise and modest. A media law
practitioner for 20 years, Williams quit his job as deputy head of legal
affairs at the BBC two weeks ago.
He contacted Stonborough, the media relations expert who specialises in
tackling hostile programme makers, to learn more about his job and the
pair hit it off.
Now Williams will work for Stonborough on an ad hoc basis advising
clients who find themselves the subject of a TV or radio programme.
His brief covers a range of legal and regulatory issues from
interviewee’s rights and programme guidelines to complaints
Williams will talk to the legal representatives of media companies in
their own language. If things get nasty he can also seek an injunction
to prevent a programme being shown.
It is a case of poacher turned gamekeeper for the 52-year-old. During
his 14 years at the BBC, Williams was called on to tackle a wide range
of the corporation’s legal and regulatory affairs. Initially he handled
contractual work and rights acquisitions mainly in the sporting
In 1991 he was involved in the BBC’s defence before the European
Commission to a complaint from the ITVA against the BBC/BSkyB/FA
agreement for coverage of Premiership football. He also advised on the
radio rights agreement for the Rugby World Cup in South Africa and was
pulled in to thrash out deals concerning boxing, motor racing, cricket,
tennis and golf.
It was during his two years at the BBC’s Programme Complaints Unit,
however, that Williams fought the battle for programme makers.
While working for the unit, which investigates complaints of serious
injustices, invasions of privacy and inaccuracies, Williams appeared
before the Broadcasting Standards Council and Broadcasting Complaints
He also played a part in persuading the Government to renew the BBC’s
charter and licence and devised a legal roadshow for BBC producers and
Occasionally he came face to face with one of Stonborough’s clients and
Stonborough doesn’t hide his delight at having Williams, and his
contacts book, on his side this time, cheerfully describing the
arrangement as a ’coup’.
Williams is more down to earth in explaining why there is a role for
him. ’There is more pressure in broadcasting to produce exciting TV,’ he
says, explaining that this can lead programme makers to cut corners or
not ask their subjects for comments.
’Companies are becoming increasingly troubled and unhappy about their
treatment on TV,’ he adds. ’They feel they are not getting a fair crack
of the whip.
’Lots of lawyers don’t know the ins and outs of the regulatory system
and would not know how to deal with broadcasters,’ he explains. ’I can
press the right buttons.’
What do his former colleagues at the Beeb make of his move? ’I don’t
know yet,’ he says grinning. ’I’ll just have to wait and see.’
The shift to the other side of the fence should not pose too many
problems for Williams. After all he made the leap from professional
actor - playing alongside Robert Powell and Anthony Hopkins - to
barrister back in 1977.
’You dress up, play to an audience and are used to the sound of your own
voice,’ Williams jokes about the similarities between the two
Standing next to Stonborough in the damage limitation man’s W1 basement
office, the pair already look poised to fly into action the moment the
phone rings - a kind of pinstriped dynamic duo.
Assistant legal adviser, ATV Corporation
Deputy head statutory and legal affairs, BBC
Senior assistant,BBC Programme Complaints Unit