Defending Hollywood's A-list
INTERVIEW: Paul Tweed:Why do so many high-profile celebrities seek out a soft-spoken Belfast solicitor to protect their reputations from defamation? Because Paul Tweed has never lost a libel case
HE HAS represented everyone from Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears to Seán Dunne and a number of senior Irish politicians, and has taken libel cases against publications ranging from The National Enquirer to Forbes Magazine.
He has been name-checked in US Congress, has never lost a libel case, and gets invited to red-carpet events, but Paul Tweed remains a soft-spoken, amiable Belfast man and insists he isn’t an enemy of free speech.
So how does a solicitor from Northern Ireland wind up as the libel lawyer of choice for Hollywood A-listers?
Tweed joined Belfast law firm Johnsons in the late 1970s and developed the business’s insurance work. Gradually he took on a number of defamation cases, but his big break came in the late 1990s when he represented Liam Neeson, who sued several newspapers for running false stories about his marriage.
Tweed says it was a “fairly difficult battle,” but they were successful in the end. He then began attracting stars such as Britney, J Lo, Harrison Ford and Nicolas Cage to his client list.
In the US, successfully suing for libel is an extremely difficult task because of the constitution’s First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech. Essentially, the plaintiff must prove that the publication acted out of malice.
However, if a celebrity is libelled by a newspaper or magazine that appears on European news-stands, they can take action against that media outlet in the relevant European jurisdiction, with a greater chance of success than in the US.
Johnsons Solicitors runs offices in Belfast, Dublin and London, which allows Tweed to employ this strategy in three jurisdictions. This means that the offending publication is faced with the threat of three sets of legal costs and damages.
But surely the judiciary in, say, Dublin is none too thrilled to see their already busy schedules being burdened by celebrity plaintiffs who live on an entirely different continent?
He says it’s by no means straightforward, but if the newspaper or magazine earns a commercial revenue in the particular jurisdiction, and if the plaintiff has a reputation there, then the court will be satisfied that the case can be heard there. In any event, 95 per cent of Tweed’s cases are settled out of court, so he’s not exactly clogging up the system.
But what about the tension between press freedom and privacy rights?
For example, in the Republic it’s not unheard of for wealthy individuals to use their financial clout to deter journalists from writing about them, threatening to sue journalists personally if they dare report anything unflattering. How does Tweed feel about that?
“My stance is dead simple,” he says. “Genuine investigative journalism has to be protected at all costs . . . Cases where the law is used to intimidate journalists should be discouraged at all costs, whatever needs to be done to do that. Investigative journalism is what makes newspapers tick, but also protects us all.”