Judges strike a modern note in music hearings

There was a time when judges didn’t know their Beatles from their bugs, but last week two QCs showed that they’re altogether hip these days, says Torin Douglas

Who are The Beatles? – one of the more famous lines uttered by a High Court judge, delivered when the Fab Four were the most famous pop group in the world. It’s of the same vintage as the quote by the judge in the “Lady Chattersley’s Lover” obscenity case: “Is it the sort of book you would allow your wife or servants to read?”

Forty years on, such remarks are still quoted to show the unworldliness of the bench. Yet these days, judges are made of sterner stuff – or, rather, less stern stuff – demonstrating a detailed grasp of the worlds of broadcasting, advertising and pop music.

Last Thursday and Friday in the Law Courts in the Strand, you could have heard two judges in separate cases let fly with their learned assessments of (a) Chris Evans and (b) two bands called Blue. Mr Justice Lightman and Mr Justice Laddie clearly knew what they were talking about and pulled no punches.

Evans had sued his former employers, Virgin Radio, for wrongful dismissal and &£8.6m in lost share options after he was fired for failing to present his breakfast show for several days in a row. He’d told the station he was ill but had been pictured in newspapers on a three-day drinking binge. The situation had been made more difficult because he had once owned the station, before selling his Ginger Media Group to Scottish Media Group.

Rejecting Evans’ claim, Mr Justice Lightman delivered a devastating verdict on the star’s character. He said he had lied in evidence, was an unimpressive witness and had the temperament of a prima donna. He was petulant, insecure and manipulative, given to sulking, laddish behaviour and binge-drinking.

In short, said the judge, he was “any management’s nightmare and (as in a Greek tragedy) the eventual outcome (given Mr Evans’ predisposition and the change of role forced on him following the sale of Virgin Radio) practically inevitable.”

By contrast, he was full of praise for Virgin’s managers. The chief executive John Pearson had “displayed extreme patience and tact in trying to maintain good relations with Evans… no criticism can fairly be laid at his door.”

For Paul Jackson, the incoming programme director, “his baptism at Virgin was a nightmare because, for reasons totally unconnected with him, Mr Evans rejected all his overtures to meet him.” Kathryn Jacob, the commercial director, “dealt with the issues relating to Mr Evans’ conduct and their impact on Virgin Radio’s business – there was and could be no serious challenge to her evidence, which I fully accept.”

Mr Justice Lightman not only rejected Evans’ claim for damages, he also ruled that the wayward star must pay the costs of the case, currently estimated at almost &£4m, and pay damages to Virgin, the level of which will be decided at a later hearing. Part of those damages will relate to Evans’ failure to fulfil promotional and sponsorship agreements with Boddingtons, McDonald’s, McVities and Umbro, thereby damaging Virgin’s relationships with them.

The following day, in a nearby court, Mr Justice Laddie was presiding over a battle of the Blues – two bands called Blue disputing which of them had the right to use the name. The original Blue are from Scotland, a group of Seventies rockers now in their 50s, who’ve produced seven albums but not had a hit for years. They were claiming their career and reputation have been damaged by the new Blue, a boy band in their 20s with a large teenage following and a string of hits.

Mr Justice Laddie quickly made it clear he was sceptical about aspects of the original Blue’s claim, which centred not just on the UK and the US, but other countries such as Brazil, where the new Blue said they had no plans to operate. Why, he asked, were they suing there, and not in Luxembourg, Spain or Uganda, where the new Blue also had no plans to promote themselves?

He then pointed out that Blue claimed to own rights to the name in “the world plus any part of the universe that may one day be occupied by humans”. “Does that include Mars?” he asked, to laughter. “My clients don’t claim any reputation in Mars,” replied their counsel, Charles Purle, QC. “That will be a relief to the other Blue,” observed the judge.

Later, responding to the QC’s claim that there had been confusion between the bands on the internet, the judge was sceptical. “Have you ever bought an album on Amazon?” he asked Mr Purle. “They show pictures of the albums and the two bands don’t look remotely alike. Your clients are aged, like you and me, the other is a boy band.”

The QC responded: “My clients weren’t aged when the album covers were produced – they too were a boy band in the 1970s” to which the judge replied “Oh no – a boy band is a style of music, not simply a young band.” Later, he commented that the two sounds were entirely different – “like comparing jazz with chamber music” – before discussing whether or not people remembered the support bands on a tour, or never heard them because they were still in the bar.

Who said judges were out of touch?

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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