Two Irish lawyers and a piece of cake

Times Online, January 25, 2007

A lecture on the mysteries of media law offers a chance of redemption

I was invited to give a talk last week on the mysteries of media law to 30 or so writing students at Falmouth University. I was nervous. My prior ventues into public speaking have mostly been of the 10-pint plus variety, when I am eloquence itself, though I did once give a talk sober, on the obscenity laws at a convention at Olympia. I can't remember what the convention was for, but can assure you that obscenity was but one of its many constituent elements.

My remit was to give a talk entitled "Be afraid. Be very afraid." I was supposed to talk for an hour, by the end of which everyone would clap gratefully as they digested just what a minefield the obscenity laws, from a publisher's point of view, were.

The trouble was that unless you are in the business of publishing top-shelf magazines (and no one present was), the obscenity laws have about as much relevance to the business of publishing as skateboard technology. But not only was I cursed by an inherent dearth of meaningful points to make, it was also a sweltering day. I rushed through everything in 20 minutes, by the end of which, thanks to the temperature and my decision to wear a thick woollen suit, I was sweating so much that I looked as if I had just come out of the shower. It was, in short, a disaster.

But that was then. Thanks to the good people at Falmouth University, I had the opportunity to exorcise this unhappy memory. Who knows? If it went well I might even be invited to talk elsewhere. Slowly but surely, I would rise to take my place among the influential, public-speaking legal glitterati. I gave thanks for not having thrown out my law books, and got to work.

Cometh the hour, cometh the nerves. The course leader was all smiles as she introduced me, and I felt the pressure to perform gnawing away at me as much as an insistent little voice kept saying: “This will be a disaster. Run.” I started by explaining the difference between libel and slander, and then moved on to examples of what is defamatory. It was going well enough, but things took a turn when I told the story of two Irish lawyers and a piece of cake.

In 1988, the lawyers sued the Dublin World for an article that alleged that they had lost their lawyerly cool after entering a cake shop. Apparently, so the paper said, they had deployed their advocacy skills to determine a crucial question: who had seen the last chocolate éclair first? This grave allegation was, to the paper’s embarrassment, not supported by any evidence. One can only imagine its effect, for, as one of the lawyers told the jury: “I was hugely embarrassed to see myself canvassed as an ass.”

I asked the students what they thought happened next.

“The case was thrown out,” said one.

“It’s a joke,” said another.

I was accused of making it up. Then a solitary voice opined that they had won the case but not got any money.

“Wrong,” I said, “the jury decided the words were highly defamatory and awarded each lawyer £50,000.”

From then on, after they had recovered from their collective incredulity, it all went swimmingly. The students were bright, curious and attentive. They might even go on to become influential lawyers some day.

Which proves, nearly 20 years after the fact, that there’s nothing like a chocolate éclair to spark a bit of debate.