Q&A with The Legal Diary’s Founder & Editor Edward Fennell

Edward Fennell, ‘The Legal Diary’ founder & editor and former editor of The Times’ ‘Law Diary’, delves into how law firms have changed their approach to PR and gives advice for lawyers in dealing with journalists in a Q&A with legal and litigation agency, Bell Yard Communications.

Edward Fennell began his legal beat when working at The Times where he memorably interviewed a Baker McKenzie partner in 90’s Moscow who described the scene of Russian tanks rolling past the window. Edward’s journey progressed to starting The Legal Diary blog and penning a medieval monastic murder story in semi-retirement.

Over the course of your career, how have law firms changed their approach to PR? Did their attitudes change? Any notable trends?

Yes, absolutely dramatic changes since I first started in 1987. Until shortly before there had been a ban on marketing and promotional activity and when this ended most firms were very unclear on how to handle it. A few went for immediate activity and made a botch of it. Others were very nervous with everything having to be handled by the managing or senior partner. In due course, they brought in PR firms but often expected unrealistic results. Besides, many were still reluctant to get drawn in. Famously, when Slaughter and May came top of the M&A table one year I asked for a comment. They replied that they would think about it. And much later in the day they simply got back and said they did not think a comment was appropriate!

The big catalyst for change was when firms suddenly started to open up offices all over Europe – especially Eastern Europe. They were desperate to get the news out and that prompted the development of a much more professional approach.

What inspired you to pursue a career in journalism?

From my early teens I became an avid reader of newspapers and news magazines and had a strong sense of vocation towards journalism. The Times, The Daily Mail (a very different kind of paper back in the 1960s) and The Economist were my big reads.

After university I started working as an Information Officer in local government. Employment and recruitment issues were my specialism and that gave me some expertise to start writing for The Times. Subsequently, I was on hand when The Times set up its weekly LAW section in 1987 and I continued to do that for 30+ years until a combination of age and Covid brought it to an end.

What was your best scoop/what’s been the most interesting story you’ve ever covered and why?

In August/September 1991, Russia was going through a terrible period of unrest. Some elements of the army staged a coup involving driving tanks into Moscow. I was aiming to write an article on the general situation from a legal perspective and was interviewing a Baker McKenzie partner in the Moscow office. As we started to talk the tanks began to roll past the building. He went to the window and gave me a vivid description of what was happening. It made the opening para a lot easier and more exciting to write!

How do you fact-check your work?

At The Times one was backed up by a fantastic sub-editing and legal service so one was saved from the worst errors. Just in the course of writing though I usually fed back to interviewees what I was planning to quote or say on their behalf. Many of the topics were highly technical, even for lawyers, so I had no hesitation in double checking that I had understood correctly.

Why did you set-up The Legal Diary?

After stopping writing the Legal Diary for The Times in Spring 2020, I thought it might be fun to continue it on a bigger basis, taking in some of the other material that I thought was interesting but had not been able to use. Besides, being now semi-retired I needed something to do with my time and keep in touch with the wider world. 

What is the best tactic for approaching you with storylines?

Usually best just to drop me an email as it is the best way to digest a story. Tuesdays are probably the best days to reach out because I publish on Friday so I need, ideally, to have my stories sorted in priority by Wednesday/Thursday morning. Getting them to me on Tuesday or Wednesday morning allows me time to digest them and get a sense of their level of priority.If I think they are ‘possible/probables’ I often come back with a query/clarification. Or a request for an accompanying image.

What advice would you give to lawyers for dealing with journalists?

Keep to the point – distill your expertise to the key points. Don’t blind with science. Bear in mind that the journalist is an intermediary to an interested audience – even, maybe, potential clients!

What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?

To be frank I feel so far removed now from what it’s like getting into the business today that I am not sure I can offer any meaningful advice other than the obvious:

  • start writing about topics that fascinate you and develop some expertise and contacts in that field,
  • try to get the pieces published somewhere/anywhere to show your abilities/expertise (and, one hopes, talent),
  • then start extending and making the right contacts across the media,
  • pray for a bit of luck

Tell us about your recent novel and how it came about.

I am a historian by background and am lucky enough to live in Winchester adjacent to the site of the medieval monastery – Hyde Abbey – where Alfred the Great was buried (it’s now a ruin, destroyed by Henry VIII). I am also very interested in Chaucer and was pretty convinced that Chaucer had known Hyde Abbey quite well. The clue is that the Tabard Inn in Southwark – where Chaucer’s pilgrims meet – was a real place and was actually owned by Hyde Abbey – and the abbot spent quite a lot of time there. So a medieval monastic murder story against the background of the Peasants’ Revolt was an obvious plot line, linking up real historical characters with Chaucer’s fictional ones. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it!

Order ‘CHARTER FOR MURDER’ by Edward Fennell here

Read/sign-up to ‘The Legal Diary’ here

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Litigation PR: Crypto Issues

Bell Yard Communications has vast experience working for clients involved in legal crypto issues that require expert litigation PR and crisis communications advisers.

ONTIER LLP

This has most prominently taken the form of Bell Yard working for the law firm ONTIER and their client Dr Craig Wright, the author of the Bitcoin White Paper under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. This White Paper served as the blueprint for a new digital asset over 15 years ago. Dr Wright chose to prove his identity as Satoshi as well as establishing and enforcing his copyright in the White Paper and numerous patents relating to the blockchain through the legal system.

Bell Yard advised ONTIER on how to promote the legal successes the firm had in the English legal cases brought by Dr Wright following the relentless online hostilities experienced by Dr Wright from individuals and entities online.

We advised on the communication around a ground-breaking action against 16 bitcoin developers to establish their duty to restore access to stolen/lost private keys to those who can demonstrate, to the satisfaction of a court, their ownership of the wallet in which digital currency is stored. We also supported ONTIER in the various copyright infringement cases ongoing, as well as defamation actions in UK and Norway.  Running in parallel was a huge case (brought by ONTIER on behalf of an entity beneficially owned by Dr Wright), against digital currency exchanges Kraken and Coindesk, valued in the hundreds of billions of pounds.

About Bell Yard Communications

We advise individuals, firms, chambers, companies large and small, charities and community groups – all of whom have one thing in common: the desire to communicate on matters relating to the law.

Bell Yard are consistently top ranked in Chambers & Partners’ Litigation Support Guide since 2018.

Contact London’s leading litigation PR and reputation management experts at Bell Yard Communications here.

We are recognised leaders in our field. We are proud to uphold the ethical and educational standards for the PR industry as members of the CIPR and PRCA.

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Bell Yard Litigation PR Clients: Michael Jackson

Instructed the morning after Martin Bashir’s documentary ‘Living with Michael Jackson’ was aired in the UK, Bell Yard set to work devising and implementing a robust rebuttal strategy to overturn the initially hostile global media coverage and subsequent litigation PR work.

Using MJJ Productions’ own footage of Bashir interviewing Jackson, we focused media attention on the betrayal Jackson felt at the hands of Bashir. Working closely with Jackson’s UK & US legal teams, Bell Yard led the global media handling of Jackson’s claim for injunctive relief and damages from Granada.

Michael Jackson Litigation PR Media Statement:

Here is the full text of the statement issued today on behalf of Michael Jackson by Bell Yard Communications:

“Michael is devastated and feels utterly betrayed by the British television programme, Living With Michael Jackson, presented by Martin Bashir and broadcast in the UK on Monday, February 3, 2003, which he regards as a gross distortion of the truth and a tawdry attempt to misrepresent his life and his abilities as a father.

“In a number of crucial respects Michael is concerned that Martin Bashir and Granada Television have broken the trust he placed in them.

“In particular, he felt he had obtained their assurance that his children would not be featured in any way in the broadcast programme.

“Michael repeatedly asked Bashir to stop filming his children, and was promised by him that the footage of his children would be taken out in the final edit but, Bashir said, shooting should not be stopped because “it would break the continuity of filming”.

“Michael is deeply upset that the programme sensationally sets out to use two or three pieces of footage giving a wholly distorted picture of his behaviour and conduct as a father.

“Michael feels particularly devastated that he has been treated so badly by Martin Bashir, whom he let into the Jackson family home on a number of occasions over eight months, in the belief that Bashir wished to make a genuine documentary of his life.

“Michael believes that what was eventually broadcast was a salacious ratings chaser, designed to celebrate Martin Bashir, and which was indifferent to the effect on Michael personally, his family and his close friends.

“Michael originally consented to grant Bashir extended access to the Neverland Valley Ranch, his family and Michael himself, because he wanted to give the world a faithful representation of the truth about his life.

“Michael believes that the programme Bashir has produced is a travesty of the truth. Michael would never have consented to participating in this film if he had been aware of how Bashir was going to falsely portray him.

“Michael believes that this programme was intentionally produced and edited with a view to broadcasting sensationalised innuendo.

“Michael feels deeply angry that the programme could have led viewers to conclude that he abuses children in any way. Michael Jackson has never, and would never, treat a child inappropriately or expose them to any harm and totally refutes any suggestions to the contrary.

“Michael would never betray the trust that a child, or their parents, might place in him.

“Michael was today moved to make the following personal statement: ‘I trusted Martin Bashir to come into my life and that of my family because I wanted the truth to be told.

‘Martin Bashir persuaded me to trust him that his would be an honest and fair portrayal of my life and told me that he was “the man that turned Diana’s life around”.

‘I am surprised that a professional journalist would compromise his integrity by deceiving me in this way.

‘Today I feel more betrayed than perhaps ever before; that someone, who had got to know my children, my staff and me, whom I let into my heart and told the truth, could then sacrifice the trust I placed in him and produce this terrible and unfair programme.

‘Everyone who knows me will know the truth which is that my children come first in my life and that I would never harm any child.

‘I also want to thank my fans around the world for the overwhelming number of messages of support that I have received, particularly from Great Britain, where people have e-mailed me and said how appalled they were by the Bashir film. Their love and support has touched me greatly.’

“These comments are excerpts from a videotaped statement from Michael Jackson, which shall be released after the airing of the Bashir television special in the United States.

“Debbie Rowe, Michael’s ex-wife and the mother of two of his children reacted today: ‘It breaks my heart that anyone could truly believe that Michael would do anything to harm or endanger our children: they are the most important thing in his life.'”

Contact

Get in touch with Bell Yard for any litigation PR/legal sector reputation management needs.

We are recognised leaders in our field. We are proud to uphold the ethical and educational standards for the PR industry as members of the CIPR and PRCA.

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Litigation PR Experts: Bell Yard Communications

Bell Yard Communications is a leading litigation PR and reputational management agency based in London with over two decades of experience supporting high-calibre and ground-breaking clients.

Over the years we have helped guide HNW individuals, companies, law firms, finance houses, family-run businesses, celebrities and embattled employees through the challenging process of being in the public eye during times of dispute or difficulty.

Claimants or defendants may require media support on matters from fraud to divorce or from employment actions to personal injury cases. The media spotlight may fall on judicial reviews or sensitive coroners’ inquests. Perhaps intellectual property disputes or planning law reviews. Even administrative court proceedings and certainly some criminal prosecutions.

Bell Yard’s expertise in the field of litigation PR is shown through the continued inclusion of the firm and its Director Melanie Riley in Chambers UK’s Litigation and Support Guide in the Litigation PR & Communications category.

Bell Yard’s Melanie Riley, Sarah Peters, and Louise Beeson were also selected once again in the 2023 Lawdragon Global 100 Leaders in Legal Strategy & Consulting list. This illustrious list, in its 9th edition, recognises the exceptional advisors who have played an instrumental role in the exponential growth of the legal industry by providing cutting-edge advice and strategic guidance to legal leaders.

Things to consider before choosing litigation PR:

  • Can you control the information flow?
  • Should you comment publicly and, if so, when?
  • What can be divulged pre-trial?
  • Should your shareholders know in advance?
  • What do you tell employees without destabilising the business
    or risking leaks?
  • If the other side is briefing, should you react?

Above all, how do you balance the public’s right to know with your desire for
confidentiality?

If even just one of these issues resonates, do get in touch as Bell Yard can help.

We are recognised leaders in our field. We are proud to uphold the ethical and educational standards for the PR industry as members of the CIPR and PRCA.

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What is litigation PR?

Litigation public relations (litigation PR), is a powerful means of communications management that can directly affect the outcome of any legal dispute or adjudicatory processing, or mitigate the impact on the client’s reputation.

Litigation PR relates to a legal dispute, which is vastly different to other forms of PR such as profile-raising. Bell Yard Communications is one of the very first litigation PR agencies in England and have assisted a range of clients in extremely important and impactful legal cases over the years.

This litigation PR service allows us to protect our client’s overall reputation and support their legal dispute. When looking for a PR company it is important to focus on a brand that can consider and deliver within the implications of communicating during any proceedings. Such as navigating any sensitive rules all while keeping to a strategic plan and approach.

Since the boom of social media and the internet the need for litigation PR has never been more important. Especially with the scale of consequences potentially being larger and the scale of coverage magnified.

Chambers Litigation Support Guide comments on Bell Yard:

“Bell Yard is a market-leading litigation PR boutique with a long-established presence in London. The firm represents defendants and claimants across a range of case types and sectors. Its services include media risk assessment, dispute profiling and public relations connected to trial, among others.”

Chambers Litigation Support Guide comments on Director Melanie Riley:

Melanie Riley is a co-founder and director of Bell Yard Communications. She is instructed by corporate clients, law firms, barristers’ chambers, charities and high net worth individuals in disputes ranging from white-collar crime to matrimonial matters.

“Melanie Riley is very personable and unflappable, which is needed for this job. She is incredibly knowledgeable. She knows all the courts and the system. Melanie is well connected and is my one-stop shop into that world of the courts and how to work through the system.” 

“She has probably the best book of journalist contacts of anybody in the business.”

If you are interested in finding out more about Bell Yard Communications’ litigation PR work then please click here to explore our various archived cases.

Contact Bell Yard Communications

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Magazine editor Richard Burton: “Don’t offer me listicles or I’ll give you 10 reasons why they’re outdated and a little desperate.”

Richard Burton, magazine editor/media consultant, shares his thoughts on what makes a good PR pitch and reflects on his own impressive career within the journalism profession in the below Q&A with Bell Yard Communications that will be of interest to anyone working in/with the media.

From being inspired by comic book characters to editing the Telegraph online on 9/11 and revealing the identity of a schoolgirl’s killer with a picture exclusive, the business editor and former Fleet Street journalist has plenty of stories to share.

What inspired you to pursue a career in journalism?

I’d love to say it was reading the Washington Post, but it was really looking at DC Comics in the back of my father’s car on long journeys. More specifically, Clark Kent. Seriously. At aged nine I wasn’t interested in his Super sideline, just the day job. I became hooked on working for an editor with a fat cigar and a disregard for anything resembling HR. The prospect of being kicked out on to the streets in search of scandal, meeting contacts in alleyways and whistle blowers in low dives sounded more enticing than “retails sales” which is what the careers people later said I’d be suited for. When I got a real job and my name appeared in my local paper, a curmudgeonly neighbour who used to disapprove of everything I did, suddenly became my best friend.

Why did you gravitate towards being an editor?

I spent 10 years in the provinces before I came to Fleet Street, actually starting as a tea-boy in the provinces, before moving from weeklies to agencies to dailies and, basically, stringing for the nationals on every patch I worked. Some of the papers back in the late 70s had lineage pools where we shared the spoils like waiters share tips. I always refused to join as I was pretty much on it 24/7 so I guess I needed greater ownership of the job. I took a news editor role purely for the money after Margaret Thatcher came to power and a sudden 17 per cent interest hike meant I couldn’t afford the mortgage I’d just signed up for. But it meant I was able to nurture a young team which I did until I fell out with the boss and got the sack.  I then went for a deputy editor job as, by then, I’d got a proper taste for management, and after about a year, two directors took me to a hotel too posh for my payband and asked me to step up. That job got me into Fleet Street. 

How do you fact-check your work?

Most stories are fairy linear and, if properly attributed, speak for themselves, but the fact that I do fact-check at all is usually a good start. So much I read these days clearly hasn’t been. Having spent years subbing on the Telegraph – querying and correcting – helps a lot. I try to use the best sources, aren’t afraid to say to someone’s face: ‘that can’t be true, I’m going to need more than that.’ I use the Deep Web a lot. I was an early adopter of CAR [computer assisted research] and never shy away from seeking an honest right of reply. I hate it when a reporter tells me they ‘saw it on the Internet.’ It’s like saying they read something in Smiths.

What does your daily/weekly schedule look like when crafting a story?

Depends. I’ve been on investigations that dragged on for weeks and involved hours of trawling microfiche files (oh, the memories), knocking on every door on the estate and,  even sitting in cars waiting for someone to arrive or leave. But back to the present: I write, edit and commission around three dozen a week, plus a bit of ghosting. Crafting is instinctive in 99 per cent of cases; I usually know where a story should be going by the time I’ve read the first few lines and I tend to edit as I read, a habit developed from years of filing ‘off the cuff’, dictating to copytakers from the scene.    

What is the best tactic for approaching you with storylines?

I’m not a huge fan of email for everything but it’s the only way when you’re editing six magazines and get 50-plus pitches a day. I get annoyed when people play games: a LinkedIn message reaching out to me to jump on a call (mind boggles) as they have something I’d be interested in. If it’s a pitch, just say so. I actively welcome them. I’ve had splashes and coverlines that simply came to my inbox. Go easy on the surveys (I get loads) and don’t offer me listicles or I’ll give you ten reasons why they’re outdated and a little desperate.  

So, I’d say pertinence, patience and persistence. By that I mean, tell me as simply and directly what it’s about, don’t expect an answer immediately and feel free to prod me – I’m old fashioned enough to be shamed into the courtesy of an eventual reply.   

What makes a good story/quote?

Emotion – in both cases. Something that moves a reader who’s short on time and has lots of media competing for their attention. The problem is, so much is hyped online these days, readers are rightly sceptical of anything too dramatic. 

In terms of quotes specifically, I find people are often reluctant to express themselves. I get offered thought leadership pieces a lot and love it when I can hear the voice of the writer. When I get something marked Approved: 4th and final revision, I know it wont be.   

What is the best/worst part of being a journalist/editor? 

The anecdotes. Hate to sound trite, but that sort of sums it up: If you spend every day seeking out something that (you hope) others will pay to know about, especially if they involve people and places they’ll pay to see or listen to, you’ll have them in abundance. Not sure there are many other jobs where a crown court judge would delay sentencing until he saw me in my seat, a rock group would ask me to drive them home to avoid crowds and a Question Time panellist would text me from the car afterwards to ask how I think they did.

I can’t honestly think of a worst part, other than the odd hours, the occasional drudgery (I couldn’t always choose my subjects) and the odd time I found myself in the night lawyer’s office struggling to reconcile what I’d written with what I could prove.   

What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?

Do it because it’s a calling and you believe in people’s right to know and the importance of an open, honest media, not because you want to “find your voice”.  That’s what blogs are for. It’s not about you. It’s about what you can impart. Also, absorb all media. Read the tabloids for word economy, the broadsheets for context and do learn the language. Few use it correctly, you’ll need to at least make a decent fist of it.

How do you consume media/stay up to date with the news?

Its easy these days. It’s all brought to your phone. But I subscribe to a few aggregators, have Sky News or CNN on constantly while I’m on the Mac in my home office, a habit I picked up during my Mirror days when TVs hung from the ceiling while we worked and I have access to news wires so it’s pretty full-on. 

What was your best scoop/what’s been the most interesting story you’ve ever covered and why?

I was editing the Telegraph online on 9/11. We ran 148 stories in one six-hour period alone  and I catnapped on a physio table at about 4am attempting round-the-clock updates. Other than that, too many to say: doorstepping a young Lady Diana Spencer in Northampton had a sense of history in the making, revealing the identity of a schoolgirl’s killer with a picture exclusive gave me notoriety and enough money to move house … but the most rewarding was unashamedly using the Mail’s massive reach to expose a couple’s agony at watching an incurable gene defect gradually take their children’s lives. I tracked down the one clinic in the world which had had any, albeit experimental, success and, even though it was massively oversubscribed, got them to agree to see them if I had them flown out. Their daughter survived another six years and the son is now symptom-free.   

Richard Burton: LinkedIn

Richard Burton is a former Fleet Street journalist who manages a range of digital titles in the UK and across Europe. His main London title is the business magazine, Director of Finance. 

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Delay in Final Report of the Infected Blood Inquiry

Responding to the news from the Infected Blood Inquiry today that Sir Brian Langstaff and his team now expect to publish their Final Report in March 2024, rather than this autumn, Des Collins, Senior Partner of Collins Solicitors who represents some 1500 individuals and their families impacted by the infected blood scandal, comments:

“This is another devastating blow for our clients, although the delay is understandable for the reasons Sir Brian has outlined. We, of course, respect Sir Brian’s wishes to follow due process and produce a thorough and considered report, however, today’s news does beg the glaring question of whether the Government will continue to stick to its line of compensation after delivery of the Final report.

“Victims are dying at a rate of one in every four days so another 6 months plus will be too late for many and given this week’s announcement of a compensation scheme for wrongfully convicted Postmasters, ahead of the Final report into that scandal, it seems doubly unfair that infected blood victims are still being made to wait.*

“We call upon the Government to implement a proper compensation scheme for infected blood victims as soon as possible, as recommended by Sir Brian in April this year. If the Government fails to do so, we fully expect to be instructed by our clients to restore the Group Action against the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and ask that the question of compensation be referred back to the Court.”

ENDS

*See Des Collins’ statement about the inconsistent treatment of infected blood victims and wrongfully convicted postmasters here: https://collinslaw.co.uk/post.php?s=2023-09-19-media-statement-date-19-september-2023-stark-contrast-between-government-response-to-post-office-horizon-victims-and-infected-blood

Media enquiries


Bell Yard Communications: BellYard@bell-yard.com 

Louise Beeson: Louise@bell-yard.com / Mob: 07768 956997 

Declan Flahive: Declan@bell-yard.com / Mob: 07944 629485

Notes for editors

The Infected Blood Inquiry, chaired by Sir Brian Langstaff, is the UK’s largest ever statutory inquiry, established to investigate how men women and children were given infected blood and blood products by the NHS from the 1970s. Following an intervention by Sir Brian, the Government made interim payments of £100,00 last October to those victims of the infected blood scandal still alive and a small number of widows. This left other victims of the scandal such as orphans and relatives still in limbo. On 5th April 2023, Sir Brian published his Second Interim Report recommending that interim payments of £100,000 should be made in respect of deaths not yet recognised to “alleviate immediate suffering”. His report said: “These interim payments should be capable of being made through the support schemes after registration and of being achieved reasonably quickly. They can and should be achievable before the compensation scheme itself is operational.” There has been no official Government response to this to date. In answering questions in the House, Ministers have said the matter of a compensation for infected blood is complex and victims need to wait on details of a compensation scheme until after the Inquiry Final Report is published.

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