June 01, 2014
Originally published in The Sunday Business Post
Family: married to Selena, four children
Favourite film: A Good Year
An Anglepoise lamp cranes over Paul Tweed’s desk, which is stacked high with papers. There are a couple of tasseled scarves hanging on the back of his door. A calendar depicts old Kyoto. There are a number of potted plants. Tweed, "international media lawyer", is wearing a hot pink shirt and a navy tie. He sips from a bottle of Evian, alternates between phones.
But these details are initially eclipsed by the wallpaper surrounding him: scores of articles clipped from the Phoenix, the Hollywood Reporter, the Sunday Times, the Irish Times, the Sunday Tribune, the Irish News . . .
Much of the reportage appears to be about the solicitor himself. The rest of the writing concerns his clients. Not the actionable stuff, of course: the actions. The actions’ outcomes, more accurately. The one-time Fianna Fáil TD for Galway West, Frank Fahey, grins widely from a frame hanging just above the solicitor’s head.
“A lot of the work I do would be for journalists,” Tweed is beginning to explain. “That was my main breakthrough, if you like, in the 1990s.”
He mentions Liam Clarke, political editor of the Belfast Telegraph; Jim McDowell, Northern editor of the Sunday World; and Gemma O’Doherty, formerly of the Irish Independent. (All of these titles, I reckon, must feature somewhere on the walls.)
“Even though we would sue them, I always think of it as a bit of a backhanded compliment that editors and journalists still come to me now,” he says.
People tend to “brand” Tweed, wrongly, he says, as acting solely for plaintiffs who attack the press. “We work on the basis of access to justice,” he says. The “we” is Johnsons, the Belfast-based law firm at which Tweed is a senior partner.
“If it’s a newspaper, I’ll fight to the death for them. If it’s a plaintiff, whether it’s an Irish plaintiff, or American, you get them access to the courts and you see what you can do.”
He says later, quietly: “I can never lose a case. If I lose one, I’m wrecked. I don’t have that luxury. Because the papers will report my loss. They may not report my victory, but they’ll report my loss.”
Tweed’s preoccupation with media does not stop at the newsprint, of course. Early on, he says: “I was wrongly blamed for causing NamaWineLake to close down.”
NamaWineLake was an anonymous blog that published compelling posts on Nama, property, banking and the Irish economy for more than three years until last May. In a short space of time, its reporting became highly influential, regularly borrowed by commentators, and even read from as an authority in Dáil Éireann. Then, without warning, it shut up shop. In certain quarters, speculation as to why was rife.
“I actually liked that site. I had a lot of respect for it, to be fair,” Tweed says. “We had a client [Neil Adair, a former Anglo Irish Bank executive]. He was accused of being part of the Maple Ten, but he wasn’t.
“We wrote, just said: ‘Look, that’s wrong, take it down, and we’d like an apology’. For me, anyhow, it was a very reasonable, pleasant, non-aggressive letter. And then, of course, this guy behind it decides to be smart and he puts my letter up, and says: ‘Paul Tweed tries to gag NamaWineLake’.
“So then, obviously, he left me no choice. I had to go in that bit harder next time around. So then he just closed it down, as a result of that. Then I get these bloggers threatening me for closing it down. How do you actually deal with that?”
Tweed’s relationship with the web is curious in the extreme. The thing that facilitated and facilitates his reputation for success has also made his life much more complicated.
On one hand, his “big break, probably, in terms of profile”, dates to 2006, when he took a libel case for Britney Spears. In his words: “The internet was coming to the fore.”
Around this time, supermarket “gossip tabloid” the National Enquirer decided to publish a European edition as well as a US edition. Tweed settled Spears’ case against the Enquirer (European) and secured an apology.
Dissatisfied that nobody was going to read the European edition in Los Angeles, he had the apology published online – a first.
“It went viral,” he says with a note of pride, though it’s unlikely that was the descriptor used at the time. “I did it again for J-Lo [Jennifer Lopez]. Then the Hollywood people realised that they could get their apology published in Dublin, or Belfast or London.”
On the other hand, he gives the example of Mail Online, among others, which is now competing with US equivalents (or others with offshore ISPs) and, Tweed says, taking more risks as a result, particularly when it comes to publishing photographs.
“This is where the problems come in, because the law isn’t geared to dealing with the online stuff,” he says. “Traditional media has quite rightly subscribed to the code of the Press Council, is subject to defamation legislation and privacy restrictions, whether the constitutional right to privacy, or whatever.”
This has not happened online, in the main. “Even traditional media that has gone online, they’re saying, ‘Well,’ ” he taps his desk twice at two different points, “‘We’ve got our print edition, here, and our online, here’, suggesting there are separate standards for the two.”
Super-injunctions are dead, Tweed says. He also believes there is no meaningful deterrent for breach of privacy in Ireland. Harassment legislation isn’t very strong either, he adds, “so we have to use a wee bit of imagination”.
“So that’s the battle, as far as we as lawyers are concerned. All of these arguments about whether our defamation laws are fair or not fair – they’re academic. If you can’t enforce it, it doesn’t really matter.”
Tweed is a slight figure with twinkling eyes and a white, feathery fringe that moves like Al Pacino’s. He begins work at 5am each morning, which he says he has always done. (“I’ve had about five cups of coffee before I have my Frosties,” he says, but lately switches to decaf at noon.)
In the space of two and a half hours, he mentions a bizarre cross-section of clients: Peter Robinson, Gerry Adams, Mike Nesbitt, Alastair McDonald, Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, Paddy McKillen, Sean Dunne, Sean Gallagher, Michael O’Leary, Louis Walsh, the late Gerry Ryan, Liam Neeson, Van Morrison (“two years we would maybe not talk about”), Nicolas Cage, Harrison Ford and Reese Witherspoon.
Earlier this year, Tweed announced the establishment of a mediation service operating from both Dublin and Belfast. This is the nominal reason for our conversation. “I am hoping that the press will be more receptive to my new role as a mediator, rather than as a litigator!” was how he jauntily concluded an email announcing the news.
Jams Ireland (derived from the acronym for Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services) is part of an international network, based in London. Tweed says that, in 36 years of practicing, he hasn’t dealt with a single case that couldn’t have settled. He regards a case that reaches court as a failure, and sees “exposing a client to the witness box” as a failure.
The Charlie Sheen case got mediated, he points out. In the Northern Ireland peace talks that broke down last Christmas, Richard Haass said the next phase should be mediation, he adds. In general, Tweed says, he is a great believer in “the old Albert Reynolds doctrine: ‘keep them talking’.”
Tweed is taking advice from Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff. He has the support of George Mitchell, the former US senator who chaired peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. Former Paddy Power chairman Fintan Drury and Paul O’Higgins SC, who represented the state in the Anglo trial this year, are both on Jams’ panel of specialists.
“I’m not giving up my day job yet,” Tweed says. “It does require a drive, but I’m convinced I can crack it. I’ve got an awful lot of irons in a lot of fires.”
At Tweed’s instigation, we move to a nearby restaurant, Deanes, to have lunch. Tweed orders halibut, I order haddock. After a strained exchange, we order a glass of wine apiece.
Tweed started practicing as a lawyer in the mid-1980s. One of his first defamation cases involved an alleged fight between two senior QCs over a chocolate eclair in a Holywood cake shop, which was reported by the Sunday World. A jury awarded the men £50,000 each. “That’s Holywood, Co Down,” Tweed says. Not to be confused with his other Hollywood.
In 1992, Tweed fought Barney Eastwood’s libel action against boxer Barry McGuigan. Four years earlier, McGuigan released a video about his career, during which he accused Eastwood, who was once his manager, of forcing him to fight against his will.
“Five and a half weeks,” Tweed said. “The Sunday Tribune described it as the trial of the century. Eastwood received a £450,000 award. That started a whole flood of work, mainly in Ireland.”
The “American work” began with a case he took for a US attorney by the name of Jimmy Binns, a flamboyant character who played himself in Rocky V. “That sort of started a wee bit of a flow then,” Tweed says. He races through a “potted history” of his career. “There were a lot of ups and downs,” he says, spearing a piece of fish, “and 3am cold sweats.”
If he gets really stressed out, he says (“which is on a daily basis”), he thinks about James Morrissey, PR consultant to Denis O’Brien, co-founder of this newspaper, a client of Tweed’s, and a friend. Morrissey owns a cottage in Connemara and has encouraged Tweed to spend some time there. “No internet access?” Tweed widens his eyes. “I couldn’t think of anything worse. I would actually have a nervous breakdown.” He says, adding, half-joking, that, for him, just listening to Morrissey describe the peace is enough.
Tweed uses “battled” and “fought” serially during our exchange. He talks about “going in hard”, but is delicate in his delivery and exceedingly polite. In sharing a side of steamed greens, I find myself copying him by making a point of resting the handle of the serving fork back in his direction each time I have finished with it. This is repeated to the point of ridiculousness, even when a lone stem of broccoli remains.
“Most people [in media] are pragmatic, and I have a very good relationship with most of the in-house lawyers, most of the editors. I have a lot of respect for a lot of the guys,” he says. “It’s rare for an editor, just for the sake of commercial gain, to just say ‘F you’, basically, ‘This is a great story’.”
Tweed orders lemon meringue pie for dessert; I have bread-and-butter pudding, and defer to his suggestion that we try a dessert wine. For whatever reason, it seems appropriate. Later, he flatly refuses to let me pay the bill. Less appropriate. “This isn’t Lunch with the FT!” he cries. (I searched: Tweed has yet to do that, though has penned a few letters to Lionel Barber.)
On the week that we meet, London law firm Davenport Lyons has just entered administration. “Dublin’s going to be hit,” Tweed says. “I cannot see the situation being maintained.”
In Belfast, there’s a lot of “one-man, two-man bands”. Tweed says the big firms have been struggling: cutting costs, cutting lawyers, cutting down. He is quick to add that, for Johnsons, albeit smaller, it hasn’t been “plain sailing”, either.
“Whenever we opened in Dublin, we were the first Northern firm to open a fully-staffed Dublin office,” Tweed says. (He has that Northern Irish tendency to use “whenever” in place of “when”.) The Dublin office is in the IFSC. “We were losing six figures a year for the first three years. For the last three years, we’ve done okay. Okay. But I’m using that word guardedly, you know?”
He works around the clock to keep Johnsons’ sailing as plain as possible. Once, during a “very vicious” fight for a “very well-known” individual with a “fairly well-known” tabloid, the newspaper in question assigned a private detective to Tweed. He was followed to France, where he was holidaying, and watched from afar as he worked, with his dictaphone and phone, beneath a jetty.
“They called me a sad case,” he says, “but I think they must be the sad case, to try and get some dirt on me. If I had known they were watching, I would have done something interesting.”