The Times legal editor Frances Gibb has written a profile of the leading legal observer, Benjamin Pell – Rumpelstiltskin of the Bailey. He will be familiar to readers of Inforrm as the supplier of the latest up to date information on the operation of the media (and other) courts.
Benjie Pell had been up all night, processing the latest highlights of the hacking scandal. Usually it’s only until 4.30am. “I have to wait for all the first editions and then send out all the e-mails,” he says. For anyone on his list, that means a rush of messages — key titbits from parliamentary proceedings, privacy rulings, lawyers’ or politicians’ bons mots. A deluge of updates continues throughout the day.
With Hackgate, Pell is in his element. After all, selling secrets was once his stock in trade. A decade ago he made his name rifling through people’s rubbish and selling it to the tabloids — with spectacular results.
These days he is respectable. “I can’t talk to you at 11 — it’s the Prime Minister’s statement,” he says excitedly. Pell will be in his “control room” in his parents’ Hendon home, three television screens on, frantically taking notes, sending tweets and texts.
Speak to Pell and it is hard to interrupt the torrent of information that comes flooding out in a high-pitched shout verging on a scream. The present scandal is his meat and drink, a potent mix of media, law and politics. “It’s outrageous,” he shouts, commenting on a remark by Tom Watson, MP, to Rupert Murdoch. “Watson quoted [Mr Justice] Eady saying, ‘The lack of action displays a remarkable state of affairs at News International“. But Eady never said that. A despicable tactic to try to confuse an old man.”
Similar comments follow: Pell says that the various parliamentary proceedings on Tuesday threw up dozens of “lies” that he is now avidly documenting. It is his new career, a chronicler of current events: his archive (literally roomful) is unrivalled — matched by his extraordinary memory and recall.
Once famed as Benjie the Binman, or worse the Fleet Street Sewer Rat (a book title in 2005), Pell says of his new unpaid role: “If I didn’t have the security of living with my parents, I couldn’t have done this.” “This” is covering the libel and privacy courts: “I have not missed a single Eady hearing since October 2002. I should have an award.”
Pell, an eccentric figure, is almost daily in the Royal Courts of Justice, carrier bag in hand, scribbling furiously away at the back of the court, often kneeling down with his back to the judges so that he can spread his papers over the benches. “I have my own Pell shorthand,” he says proudly, “better than many shorthand writers — it includes physical gestures by the judges. I am only 2 or 3 per cent out compared with the official transcripts.”
The recent furore over privacy injunctions gave Pell a new lease of life. He is proud of his record in monitoring rulings, bringing cases to the attention of lawyers, even judges. All the judges know him. He even won praise from Lord Justice Ward in March when he unsuccessfully applied — through David Price, QC — to be admitted to a privacy hearing. The appeal, known as ETK v NGN Ltd , was listed in private. Agreeing to hear Pell’s submissions, Lord Justice Ward said that he would certainly “not be throwing out” Pell, saying that he enjoyed watching him “scribbling away and laughing at my jokes”.
Nor does he hesitate to assail lawyers, asking why they have not taken point X or cited case Y. And after Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury’s report on privacy injunctions, he wrote to point out that the 18 injunctions listed were wide of the mark and that there are “a large number of cases” not mentioned.
“They write the law and interpret it, but I am the one [he says with engaging immodesty] who brings these cases to their attention in the first place. I was the first to understand the significance of the Von Hannover [privacy case], to quote Lord Woolf in the Garry Flitcroft case on the countervailing public interest in disclosure …”
The judges, he says, “have completely misinterpreted” what Parliament intended on privacy, not giving adequate weight to freedom of expression. “It is not judge-made law, it is judge-made law in Strasbourg.” Pell has notched up some 1,850 court days since 2002 including 700 hearings involving Mr Justice Eady, only missing Jewish holidays because he is a devout Orthodox Jew. He survives on two hours’ sleep a day, except for eight on the Sabbath.
It is a different life from his bin-rummaging days. Pell says things went off course for him when his much loved elder brother died in a car accident, just two weeks after Pell’s bar mitzvah. “From that moment I became completely obsessive — it had a critical effect on me.” He initially failed his law degree at University College London; one problem was his obsession with the mass of legal authorities: “If told to buy one book I had to buy them all … I’d spend all day in the library looking at things like the Zambian Law Review just to get a reference into my essays.”
But he also became addicted to gambling and flunked his finals after blowing £70,000 on the Derby in 1986 the day before. He took a third-class degree (and later the Legal Practice Course). But he could not find articles and so took work with a cleaning company. That, with other work in property, led him to bags of papers outside estate agents — a rich seam of material for negotiating property leases and so on.
So began the nightly business of rummaging through bins of law firms and talent agencies in London (he’d take home 40 to 50 bags a night) and the lucrative business of selling stories to the tabloids with big exclusives including Elton John’s cash problems and Jonathan Aitken’s misdemeanours. His tally was 25 front-page stories and hundreds inside. His earnings were put at £100,000. He says it was nearer £25,000. But it was not about the money, he says, rather to expose hypocrisy. Because despite such eccentric, if illegal, activities (Pell was eventually prosecuted and fined £20) he has a strong moral view, justifying what he did. It was the lawyers and advisers who were guilty of negligence, they should have shredded their papers, he says.
The tabloids eventually became wary of taking his wares and it all came to an end: in any case, a meeting with the writer John McVicar, who was at that time covering the Jill Dando murder, sparked his fascination with the courts and law reporting.
What of the future? He worries where Hackgate will lead, fearing state regulation. “Of course it’s terrible, what has been done, but it has been overblown and exploited for commercial ends. A vibrant tabloid culture is vital.” Truth should be the main test of what is allowed, he says, although he draws the line at exposing intimate details of people’s health or sexual proclivities. “I believe in traditional family values: but it is respect for private and family life, not for private or family life.”
Meanwhile, he is busy as the self appointed guardian of the courts.
“I should be licensed to be the eyes and ears of the public. Who else would have all day and night to devote to this? I am a national institution — even if some say I should be in one.”
This article originally appeared in The Times and is reproduced with permission and thanks.