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For whom the Bell’s Toll

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

Only once in my life have I ever been so terrified in the moment of an event to have had a spontaneous escape of fluid from my bladder in response. I don’t think we know each other well enough -yet - for me to tell that story today but no doubt it’s going to come up sometime.

Whenever my legal practice was in it’s formative years it became the ‘victim of it’s own success’ in a way in which that concept is not supposed to happen.

It entirely DID become such a victim in the way you imagine in that as a newly minted lawyer with five years pre- and two years post-qualification experience, I knew enough to be able to do my job of being a litigation solicitor, but I didn’t know enough to do what had now become my real day job of managing a business, and more particularly the employees within the organisation.

I’d had a year of Business Administration education in Alaska as you might recall but financial management and business matters don’t prepare you for dealing with people rather than spreadsheets.

Over the course of the first decade in business I would make many many mistakes and nearly closed-up shop on several occasions but those stories are also for another day. I had read a book during this time by an American business guru called Joe Calloway called ‘1ndispensable: How to become the company your customers can’t live without’.

The letter I is deliberately replaced with a number 1 - you see what he did there? Cool! I was so enamoured with the book that I bought a copy for all my staff to read but I have no idea how many of them did so, or how many did as I did and were wowed by some of the insights but then failed to follow them all fully through to action.

The primary lesson I’m referring to, and one that is spoken about by many experts in different ways, was ‘What other people think of you is none of your business’.

In other words:

‘Sticks and Stones May break your bones, but words will never hurt you.’

That was the form of the concept that I had grown up listening to adults say when trying to sooth my hurt feelings at some insult that had been slung at me and I’d burst into tears.

I have never bought into the idea that something that was merely said to you or about you, rather than the physical infliction of pain, could do you no harm.

Indeed its not particularly helpful when, as happened to me once, I was queuing up in a dinner line and the older boy behind me started pummelling me with his fists saying ‘You make a really good punchbag.’

Was I supposed to take solace from the notion that at least being referred to as a cylindrical receptacle full of sand wasn’t harming me so as to be able to ignore the bruising that was coming - or was I only supposed to feel the ‘knuckle-on-back’ pain and not the ego bashing that was also taking place?

This week former DUP leader Arlene Foster was awarded £125,000.00 by an eminent and respected Judge in a high profile libel case. It is entirely possible from what I read of the proceedings that Dr Jessen’s defence was just a photograph of him sticking his tongue out with his thumbs in his ears and him wiggling his fingers.

Regardless of what it was, the very idea that Mrs Foster’s high profile -which would require extreme levels of mental resilience in the face of repeated and heated attacks over many years- could somehow insulate her from injury to her reputation would not have found much favour with the Court.

Indeed the linguistic prowess of Mr Justice McAlinden is encapsulated in the words he used in the Judgement which are worth repeating:

It was an outrageous libel concerning an individual of considerable standing, attacking her integrity at a most fundamental level and it involves the trashing, in a very public fashion, of the relationship that Mrs Foster holds dearest in her life...

The point I am trying to illustrate is that there is a difference between your own mental abilities at being able to ignore what other people are saying about you so you can get on with your mission and vision; and the harm that can be caused by what those people are saying to the wider public whether openly or not.

People wouldn’t talk negatively about others so much if it wasn’t a very successful tactic at getting in their head and putting them off their game.

Why else would boxers engage in ‘trash talk’ at the pre-fight weigh-in - the supporters of each fighter won’t care about who’d make the better punchbag- they’ll always believe in their guy or girl - but will their pugilist believe in themselves?

Mental health and well-being is talked about constantly now as awareness of the lack of resilience of many people is being truly recognised.

For my part I describe myself as an optimistic pessimist - I’d go through waves of angst but I believe that ultimately everything will work out all right. It’s what makes the bad days manageable because they are fleeting and gone when you awake the next morning. So in terms of mental strength, I probably am in a better position than most but I have struggled to this day with the idea that people who wish to disparage you to people you don’t know can poison the potential for a relationship with that third party. If they aren’t already a fan of yours they might never be because of what they’ve heard said about you is what causes me to hold back.

I don’t have to let the idea that I have been slandered to someone unknown be a reason not to try to get to know them, but I do, its controllable and within my power to do something about it but that seems too big a task to get around them all.

There has been a lot of criticism in the past week about the BBC and Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana. As ever it was not the crime, of fooling her into agreeing to go onscreen using faked documents, but the cover-up that has been cast up to throw aspersions on the broadcaster’s journalistic independence. In reality, I’m of the view, that its part of a wider campaign to undermine the BBC so that the legal restrictions on balanced reporting can be removed as happened in America 30 years ago and which we can see from what has happened there is not a good development.

My own experience was that my high street competitors- other solicitors- and my client’s adversaries - insurance companies - became strange bedfellows with me and the organisations I now own being their common enemy.

As Joe Calloway had encouraged us to do, we had become the companies that our customers and clients couldn’t do without and that meant that the two groups who felt they were losing out needed to work together to stop us.

The whispering campaign that was afoot took many forms including anonymous postings on websites and then print outs of those websites being anonymously sent to customers to alert them to what ‘people on the internet’ were saying about us. This type of thing was happening for about 7-10 years before the most egregious efforts were made which was our nemeses using the respectability of my regulator to ask the BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight team to investigate what I was doing. My understanding is that they led these specialist journalists to believe that our growth as a business could only be achieved if something wasn’t right with us.

I have never met a single one of them, but I was made aware that they had been contacting our customers and asking for their views on us. Happily those clients had been so well treated that they were able to reassure the broadcaster and declined to be interviewed before then calling us to tell us what had occurred.

I heard nothing more for about 9 months and then about 10 days before my daughter’s First Holy Communion I received a phone call from a solicitor colleague to say that he had been at a funeral and had overheard an official of the law society brag that Spotlight would indeed be running a feature on me in the following fortnight.

This information was distressing, we were simply going about our business, being successful by operating efficiently and with strategies that worked for our customers and clients, and not by any nefarious means. Yes, more business for us meant less business for our competitors and better results for our clients meant higher payouts by insurers; but there was such a pain in my psyche that they couldn’t play by the rules and instead were trying to take their below the line murmurings to primetime.

Whether what had been said at the cemetery was true or not true, the BBC never did run such a profile and its my belief that this was because of their honourability and diligence in their work and their inability to be fooled by charlatans.

But for me the thought that they were going to be beguiled had grave (groan - yes I went there) consequences which I live with to this day.

On the Saturday of that week I was at the cinema with my daughters watching a movie. Sitting in the dark, alongside my stash of sweetie pic’n’mix, I had a bottle of water with a spout top.

During the course of the film, I noticed that I was having difficulty getting my mouth to go around the apex of the bottle opening. I felt that I must just be very tired from work.

When I got home I rested on the sofa and when my wife came in from work around 10pm, she immediately looked at me in horror and said ‘What’s happened to your face?’ Bemused I replied saying I didn’t know what she meant and she told me to go and look at myself in the mirror. There I saw that one half of my face was paralysed and drooping compared with the other side which was moving normally.

I went to A&E and saw a very nice doctor of Eastern European origin who told me that I most likely had a brain tumour as he thought he could feel a swelling, but that it could also just be Bell’s Palsy and they’d know more if I came in on Monday morning for a scan. I’m not going to say he was called ‘Dr Google’ but he certainly had the search engine’s knack of telling you the worst case scenario first down pat!

I was probably in shock when I told my wife when I got home as there was no real emotion at that time. I had to call my business partner on the Sunday evening to tell her I wouldn’t be in on for a meeting the next day and when I called I just got her voicemail. I vividly recall my voice breaking as tears welled up as I ended with ‘..give me a call back...there’s something I have to tell you...’

Bell’s Palsy is relatively painless despite how it looks and I’m delighted -compared with the alternative- to say that I was diagnosed with it. It is a mysterious illness in that the jury is out on whether it is viral or stress induced.

For me I am entirely of the opinion that it is the latter. I believe that I was so ferociously terrified by the idea that my reputation was going to be destroyed in such a public way by slanderers influencing otherwise reliable sources of information that my career was going to be over before it had really even begun.

A decade or more on, I still have a droopy eye and a screwed-up mouth when I smile - but it is nowhere near the grotesque image of my face in the photos of my daughter’s first day in a pretty white dress. The blue skies and sunshine a total contrast to the pain and embarrassment I was feeling at being the only father in the church looking like Quasimodo- and it really was ‘The Be-ll’s..The B-ell’s...’. I still feel that I let my child and my family down by creating a distraction from her important moment.

I had had to meet one of my insurance company adversaries a few days later and ironically enough I think that my physical weakness actually helped create a cordiality that hadn’t existed before. It wasn’t a negotiation between two corporations - it was a friendly interaction between two human beings. My opponent even reaching for a box of tissues to stop me drooling all over his desk - it’s the little things that say so much about compassion and empathy.

To this day I resent with a deep-seated passion the idea that my physical health was so tangibly challenged by mere words and my own thoughts. These things were not supposed to hurt me but they did and the people who were behind the saying of them are not on my Christmas Card list.

When I hear of lobbying to curb libel laws because of the level of awards or the seeming easiness of vindicating your reputation I think of my own experience and will now think of Arlene’s. If having to pay for causing irreparable harm to another person’s reputation has a chilling effect on what people say about others then I am happy we live in such a world.

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