Lesley Riddoch: Recipe for more Met embarrassment

The biggest question is why Nigella Lawson and her ex-husband opted to launch legal action at all. Picture: AP
The biggest question is why Nigella Lawson and her ex-husband opted to launch legal action at all. Picture: AP
Share this article
Have your say

Trying to stir up a prosecution against the Domestic Goddess is likely to fall as flat as a failed soufflé, writes Lesley Riddoch

Should Nigella Lawson be prosecuted for snorting coke in 2010 and smoking cannabis in front of her children? On the one hand her “crimes” have already been punished by negative worldwide publicity. On the other hand – if an “ordinary” mum might face prosecution for possession of a Class A drug should the Domestic Goddess be immune?

It’s a fair question. But the urge to prove even-handedness must be set against the danger that justice and the shaken reputation of the Metropolitan Police might be further damaged by fresh involvement in this poisonous case.

So why proceed?

Doubtless Metropolitan Police Chief Bernard Hogan-Howe felt the heat last Friday after a Telegraph headline thundered: “Nigella legacy: drugs amnesty for middle class?” The paper maintained “Britain’s most senior policeman risked accusations of giving approval to middle-class cocaine use” after tough talking about zero tolerance of wealthy drug users. The very next day the Met reversed its position and announced a review of Ms Lawson’s evidence by a specialist unit.

Since MPs are complaining about “inordinate and unjustified” delays by a Met probe into accusations of police collusion in Plebgate, we can assume Sir Bernard is a tad twitchy about high-profile criticism and his force is more than a tad overstretched. So will the public really back spending more taxpayers’ money investigating this case whilst “self-confessed criminals” behind banking scandals continue to trade in the City? I’d guess a decision to prosecute Nigella might trigger far more hostile headlines than last week’s solitary salvo.

In truth, the biggest unanswered question over the whole sorry saga is why two intelligent but warring celebrities opted to launch legal action in the first place.

Neither party desperately needed to recover the money. Neither intensely disliked the women accused of fraud. And neither media-savvy professional could have been unaware of the dangers court action might bring.

There was always the chance they would lose, the likelihood dirty linen would be washed in public and the certainty of vigorous cross examination – after all, the case essentially boiled down to whether Nigella or her personal assistants was lying under oath. During ten hours giving evidence, Ms Lawson said: “I felt I would be put on trial, and this is what happened.” Why, then, did the case go ahead?

Charles Saatchi’s lawyers claim the action was at Nigella’s instigation. Nigella says Saatchi took the initiative and she felt compelled to go along with her husband’s wishes, especially when he threatened to sue her for the lost money in the civil courts if she didn’t give evidence.

Either way there seems to be no real motive for the court action, which leads to the conclusion that lost cash was less important to the millionaire art critic than lost pride and the chance to drag his wife’s reputation through the mud. In short, there’s a strong chance the justice system was “played” to create a proxy trial of Nigella Lawson. Is the public interest served by allowing that to continue for a minute longer?

It was always clear that any court case involving Nigella Lawson would make front page news – if a picture paints a thousand words, Ms Lawson’s recent life has become a veritable gallery. There was that picture of Saatchi with his hands around his wife’s neck. That picture of her long, stoic, defiant walk into court to give evidence against the Grillo sisters. And, of course, a decade of the pictures and images that created Nigella the Domestic Goddess – fun, flirtatious and sensuous with food. As one commentator put it: “She has raised the cult of celebrity to a culinary art in which the pleasures of looking and devouring are perfectly blended.”

Indeed, membership of “Team Nigella” seemed so much more important and real than legal procedures, David Cameron almost destroyed the court case in one ill-advised quip.

But Nigella’s case didn’t just have headline appeal – it had precedent. The public has witnessed a minor avalanche of special pleading from the great and good, including MPs convicted for fiddling expenses and Chris and Vicky Huhne – two high- profile professionals brought down by lies, a disintegrating marriage and a perceived misdemeanour which also happened to be a crime. Sadly for Vicky Pryce, she was no domestic goddess and the public did not rally to her cause when she faced jail for taking her husband’s speeding points.

But where is public opinion on Nigella Lawson today?

On the one hand, both she and her ex-husband stand revealed as rich, lax and spendthrift the week before food banks prepare to feed thousands of Britons on the breadline. Their “dilemma” looks fairly simple. “Don’t give staff credit cards, fail to check the statements before paying and then become furious when they’ve been used.” Mind you, the Grillo sisters are no better – claiming the offer to live rent-free in Battersea while they worked to pay back the money was “being treated worse than Filipino slaves”.

Still, whatever public opinion thinks, the possible case against Nigella Lawson will come down to legal argument. And many experts believe that’s fraught with difficulties.

According to Professor David Nutt, former government adviser on drugs laws: “The law in this country is based on possession of drugs, not on their use. The police would not be able to prove it.” Sally O’Neill QC, a criminal barrister says: “If someone does incriminate themselves giving evidence as a witness it would be highly unusual for them to be prosecuted.” So the likelihood is this case is now effectively closed.

Like many serious-minded Scots, I had no desire to waste time or energy judging the acrimonious and competing claims of this angry, divorced couple. Sections of the general public may indeed be interested to know more. But the public interest is not served by a further penny of taxpayer’s cash spent on this warring pair.

Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo are apparently planning to sue Ms Lawson and Mr Saatchi for defamation and damage to their reputation. I doubt that will happen either.

All the public will ever know for certain is what we already knew – rich celebrities can be spendthrift, unmanaged staff can be opportunistic, the public can be prurient and the law – applied without common sense – can be an ass.