Ready to do battle

James Silver spends a bad day in court with Jason Fraser, but still finds him in combative mood

THE LOBBY
outside Court 52 at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand last
Wednesday crackled with tension and mutual antipathy. Two sides in a
highly contentious picture copyright dispute with ramifications which
are still being digested by the industry a week later were staring each
other down.

On one side, a phalanx of lawyers representing the
BBC and Brighter Pictures – a division of Big Brother producers Endemol
– huddled together, murmuring.

On the other was celebrity
photographer Jason Fraser, a man with a low profile but a big ego,
whose pictures of world-famous personalities have earned him a small
fortune and taken him to the very top of his sharp-elbowed,
scoop-centred trade.

Accompanied by his solicitor, barrister and
a close tabloid executive friend who had shown up to offer moral
support, Fraser cut the kind of figure you feel sure would irritate a
judge. Among the wigs, gowns and suits gathered in the drab airport
departure lounge-style courtroom, he was dressed in an opennecked white
shirt and dark suit with sunglasses poking out of his top pocket.

Given
his demeanour, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Fraser was in court
last Wednesday to hear good news. He wasn’t. After three weeks of
deliberations, four days in court, and a fortune spent on legal
representation by both sides, Mr Justice Mann had already ruled that
the BBC and Brighter Pictures were entitled to use 14 of Fraser’s
pictures of the Beckham family in their Piers Morgan-fronted BBC1 show
Tabloid Tales without payment.

The corporation and Endemol’s
defence had been fair dealing under “criticism and review” in copyright
law, which allows the reproduction of images for the purposes of
criticism, review or news reporting.

Fraser’s side had argued breach of copyright.

The
judge, Mr Justice Mann, who gave the impression of someone whose mind
had begun to drift towards his Easter break, ordered Fraser to pay
£100,000 towards costs within 28 days and denied him right to appeal on
the grounds that he didn’t consider there to be “any real prospect of
success”.

Fraser scowled at the news. He fixed his foes in the
public gallery with a rattlesnake glare. His barrister winced as if
anticipating the tongue-lashing from her client which would surely
follow.

As the court rose, Fraser invited his legal
representation to join him in a private conference room. The tabloid
executive and Press Gazette weren’t invited.

His raised voice was audible through the closed door.

“This case was un-losable,” he shouted. “Yet you somehow managed to lose it!”

The
BBC and Endemol team, careful not to crow, slapped a few backs and
talked tentatively about enjoying “a celebratory lunch”. The presence
of the tabloid executive drew a few anxious glances. When a BBC
solicitor began briefing a corporation press officer on her mobile, her
elbow was gently tugged by a colleague. She looked at the tabloid
executive and disappeared into a lift to continue her conversation.

By
the time Fraser emerged he had parted company with both his barrister
and solicitor for good. “This isn’t over,” he said, just loudly enough
for everyone present to hear. “If they want a fight, they’ve got
certainly got one.”

Outside, Fraser said he would instruct a new legal team and go to the Court of Appeal where the judges were “more experienced”.

“I’ve
taken a big financial hit,” he sighed, as we stepped into his
chauffeur-driven gun-metal BMW 745i. “I’m not at the fighting-fund
stage, but nor am I in Catherine Zeta Jones’s league. £100,000
certainly isn’t loose change.”

Fraser, perhaps surprisingly a
20-year member of the NUJ, talked animatedly in the car. “But that’s
not even the point. This ruling is so far-reaching that if a stand
isn’t taken immediately, photographers, writers, illustrators,
cartoonists… basically any creative is doomed.

“It means from
now on any light-fingered TV production company which chucks in a crumb
of criticism or review can pinch our photographs either from the web or
copy them straight out of newspapers. This is the equivalent for our
industry of bootlegging of DVDs.”

He switched his phone on and
the calls began to flood in. The first was the Media Guardian whom he
briefed at length. The second came from his dazzling US girlfriend,
Tina – a former supermodel.

Within minutes rival picture agency,
Matrix, called to offer its full support and inform him that it would
immediately suspend business with the BBC and Endemol in protest. Then
came calls from showbusiness editors, some of whom pledged they would
boycott the next Big Brother series.

As the significance of the
ruling began to sink in, he took his first call from a national
newspaper editor. Others were to follow. The next day’s Hickey column
in the Daily Express would write that Fraser has “more connections than
the Paris Metro”. They weren’t exaggerating.

His flash Kensington
offices have sunken lighting and plasma TV screens built into the
whitewashed walls. There are original posters of two of his favourite
movies, Blow Up and All The Presidents Men. Fraser, a third-generation
journalist, has never tired of the glamorous view of his trade.

On
arrival, he barked orders at his (all-female) team, joking that they
should make sure that all the screens were tuned to Sky News rather
than the BBC. Over the next few hours, I witnessed him speak to another
four national newspaper editors.

In the ensuing 48 hours,
positive pieces appeared in the red-tops and mid-markets, each relaying
a new piece of information. If Max Clifford had been hired to
co-ordinate the PR offensive it couldn’t have been more strategically
effective.

One column announced his intention to go to the Court
of Appeal, while another revealed he had instructed a new, top-drawer
legal team. A third added that Fraser had won damages against the BBC
for using two of his pictures of Sir Paul McCartney and his wife
Heather without permission and that he would be donating the proceeds
to Heather’s antilandmine charity.

Following the decision by
Matrix to block the BBC and Endemol’s web access to its archive, many
of the other leading agencies – some of them deadly rivals of Fraser’s
– were apparently poised to follow suit at the time of going to press.

No wonder Fraser looked more relaxed when I saw him two days later.

“Just
because I can afford go to court doesn’t mean that I get a kick out of
it,” he said. “I wish it had never come to this, particularly as far as
the BBC is concerned because I’ve always found them highly
professional. But I can either roll over and allow my photographs – and
those of my colleagues – to be ripped off for the rest of my career or
I can fight to have this preposterous judgement overturned.”

With Victoria Beckham reportedly lined up to testify at appeal, Fraser’s spell in front of the camera looks certain to continue.

James Silver is a freelance journalist

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