Amid all the oddball celebrity behaviour, the Douglases’ suit against Hello! has shown how shrewd OK! owner Richard Desmond really is, writes Torin Douglas
For those of us with tickets to Court 35 at the Royal Courts of Justice, the case of Douglas & Others versus Hello! Ltd and Others has been illuminating as well as entertaining. It has laid bare the danse macabre played out between celebrities and the media – the negotiations over price and editorial control, the role of paparazzi as “bounty-hunters” for whom the right picture ahead of the pack can be worth a fortune, and the assumption that a publication that fails to secure exclusive pictures will attempt a “spoiler”.
The cast of characters has been as exotic as any in the pages of Hello! and OK!. Top billing has naturally gone to the happy couple, Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas – not merely happy but “in seventh heaven” after their wedding, until they discovered illicit pictures were about to appear in Hello! (whereupon they became the devastated couple, deeply upset by a “truly gut-wrenching and very disturbing experience”). They sued Hello!, and others, for £500,000 for breach of privacy, while OK! – which had bought the exclusive rights – sought further damages of £1.75m.
Other larger-than-life personalities in the case have included:
•The Marquesa de Varela, the “celebrity sign-up supremo” from Uruguay, who claimed she was persuaded to sign an untrue legal statement because she feared losing her contract with Hello! and, with it, her ability to support her elderly mother, three children, six grandchildren and almost 200 dogs;
•The Spanish owner of Hello!, Eduardo Sanchez, who, the Marquesa claimed, insisted on handling the Douglas wedding negotiations, even though he speaks no English, and who admitted his company deserved only “six out of ten” for efficiency and administration: “We are more journalists than businessmen”;
•The men who secured the secret photos – Philip Ramey (described in court as “the best paparazzo, the most aggressive, the one who would swear most loudly”) and his sidekick, the charming Rupert Thorpe, son of the disgraced former leader of the Liberal Party;
•The glamorous party organiser, Simone Martel, appearing via videolink from New York, who spelled out the “far-fetched but necessary” precautions the couple took to preserve the security of their wedding: “We worked on the basis that ‘paranoia is the mother of survival,” she told the court.
The New York venue wasn’t even revealed on the guests’ invitations (but a florist who didn’t get the job told the New York Post it was the Plaza Hotel). Two private security firms were hired, as well as the hotel’s in-house staff. Ms Martel even hired a fire security firm “because of our concern that a journalist or photographer might try to create a fire evacuation to take photographs of Catherine, Michael and their guests as they left the building”.
The wedding rooms were regularly swept for sound and video equipment. Guests were given handcrafted gold pins to gain admission and reminded that photography was not permitted. Where cameras were found, they were checked into the cloakroom and, if one was discovered in the wedding itself, security staff were told to say the film would be developed at the couple’s expense and the photos returned, minus any of the wedding.
Even so, a technician managed to record two hours of sound and video of the wedding, the manager of the entertainer Gladys Knight tried to take photographs of the couple and one unnamed guest brought their personal photographer with them.
Beside these exotic practices and characters, OK! proprietor Richard Desmond came across as relatively low-key and normal. It was easy to see how he has managed to overtake Hello! in the celebrity magazine stakes – through a combination of Hello!’s “six out of ten” efficiency, which saw Sanchez and the Marquesa apparently squabbling over the Douglas pictures, and Desmond’s own single-mindedness and short chain of command.
Former OK! editor Martin Townsend explained why the wedding had been so crucial: “In November 2000, OK! and Hello! were in fierce competition for sales. The ABC figures showed Hello!’s average weekly circulation was 458,663 and OK!’s was 455,162. The figures have a major effect on advertising rates and the wedding was our last important feature before the end of the ABC year.”
He told the court OK! had bid a million pounds for the exclusive Douglas wedding pictures “simply to attract their agent’s attention”. And in a speech last week, Desmond revealed that after Michael Jackson refused to discuss a deal for pictures of his baby, he had put $2.1m (£1.3m) in his lawyer’s bank account. Within a day, the deal was done.
Desmond also explained why, ironically, he is now doing joint photo-shoots with Hello!: celebrity greed. “It reached a peak when Victoria Beckham wanted £1m for an exclusive on her party to celebrate the England football squad heading off for the World Cup and in aid of the NSPCC. It was time to blow the full-time whistle.”
As Desmond prepares to challenge the Evening Standard by launching the Evening Mail, no one should underestimate him.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News