Judge's 'regret' at David Cameron's 'Team Nigella' comment
Published 20/12/2013 | 13:36
THE Grillo sisters' trial was left hanging in the balance after Prime Minister David Cameron voiced his support for "Team Nigella" halfway through proceedings.
Mr Cameron's comments, made in an interview in The Spectator, prompted the defence to renew calls for the trial to be stopped amid concerns that an "endorsement" for Ms Lawson from the Prime Minister would influence the jury.
The trial did not collapse, but Mr Cameron received a stern rebuke from judge Robin Johnson.
As the prosecution reached the end of its case at Isleworth Crown Court, Mr Cameron was quoted in the interview as admitting he was on "Team Nigella".
The term was coined as a reference for those who back the TV cook in her messy split from Charles Saatchi, even giving rise to a twitter handle, TeamNigella, being created.
The forum for the comments was no surprise - Ms Lawson's brother Dominic Lawson edited the magazine, a post his father also held in the 1960s, from 1990 until 1995.
In the interview, apparently carried out in a car en route from Westminster to his Oxfordshire constituency, Mr Cameron was asked if he was on "Team Nigella".
"I am," he reportedly said. "I'm a massive fan. I've had the great pleasure of meeting her a couple of times and she always strikes me as a very funny and warm person, but I'm also an amateur cook and I like her recipes.
"Nancy (his nine-year-old daughter) and I sometimes watch a bit of Nigella on telly. Not in court, I hasten to add."
The Prime Minister's comments, which went on to be widely reported, prompted urgent calls from lawyers on behalf of both sisters for the judge to bring the trial - one of the highest-profile of the year - to an end.
In scenes the jury did not witness, Elisabetta Grillo's barrister Anthony Metzer QC said the comments amounted to a "character reference through the back door" for Ms Lawson.
He said the case hinged on evidence from the TV cook on whether she had given the Grillos permission to use credit cards or not, adding: "The Prime Minister is essentially saying in the course of the trial that she is somebody that he would endorse."
Mr Metzer claimed the trial had been used as a battleground between Mr Saatchi and Ms Lawson.
"Although they came at different stages there has been a battle through this court of seeking in both cases to salvage their own reputation," he said.
"They (the Grillos) were the lambs in the centre of two more devouring animals."
Karina Arden, representing Francesca Grillo, said: "If one looks at it realistically, the man on the street would say 'Well, look, the Prime Minister likes Ms Lawson'.
"There is real risk that the jury will be influenced by the fact that the Prime Minister likes Ms Lawson and thinks she's a jolly good sort."
Clearly frustrated by the length of time taken out of the trial because of Mr Cameron's comments, Judge Johnson embarked on a rebuke of the Prime Minister, telling jurors: "It is of regret when people in public office comment on a person involved in a trial in progress."
Saying it was "inconceivable" that some of them might not have seen the comments, he said: "The defendants feel aggrieved that the comments are favourable to Ms Lawson. The fact that they are aggrieved is not without justification.
"You realise that what public figures may feel about this case, or witnesses in this case, can have no bearing on your views."
Urging the jury to reach their decisions solely on the evidence, he added: "I'm sorry that much court time has been taken up by this topic.
"I don't fault the defence in making me aware of the large amount of material. I'm only sorry it has wasted almost the entire morning of court time that should have been devoted to evidence and the real issues in the case."
The widely-reported telling off elicited no response from Mr Cameron at the time, and Downing Street remained tight-lipped today, refusing to comment on the gaffe.
Mr Cameron is not the first prime minister to find himself in hot water over ill-judged comments.
In 2005 Tony Blair was warned by a judge against making any further public statements about the court martial of three British soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi civilians, after describing photographs of the abused Iraqis as "shocking and appalling".
His comments prompted Judge Advocate Michael Hunter to issue a warning to him and other public figures that no further comments should be made about the trial.
And the following year home secretary Charles Clarke risked the trial of five people accused of involvement in the deaths of 23 cockle-pickers at Morecambe Bay by making "inappropriate" remarks.
During an interview about immigration law on Radio 4 four months into the trial, Mr Clarke referred to the case while speaking of the "very serious" problem of international crime gangs trafficking people across borders, the sex trade and drug dealing.
Trial judge Mr Justice Henriques said the then-home secretary's comments were inappropriate and wrote to him telling him not to repeat the incident.