There is one question any serious journalist couldn’t fail to ask Mark Stephens CBE, the top media lawyer who has probably appeared in more big name cases than any other solicitor: “Does Julian Assange really have bad B.O.?”
When I ask him this, Stephens creates a silence and looks down at his plate (which contains sea-bass; we’re eating at the offices of his firm, Finers Stephens Innocent, near Great Portland Street in central London). I sense disappointment and frustration. Then looking up slightly, but not enough to meet my eye, he says: “That’s not something I ever noticed. I think it was a media-manufactured thing that just caught on.”
According to Private Eye, Assange “quarrelled violently with his lawyers”, “refusing to pay [the] bills” of Stephens and Geoffrey Robertson QC. But Stephens is not keen to discuss Assange today. He has more pressing matters to deal with, like homophobia, in relation to which he is working to bring about changes to the law.
“Only the British commonwealth made homosexuality illegal,” he says. “There are 193 countries which do not criminalise this, which is the overwhelming preponderance. There are still four countries in which you can get life imprisonment: Iran, Saudi Arabia and a couple in Africa that are still part of the Commonwealth. One country still gives you a flogging plus imprisonment, between 10 and 30 lashes, depending on how angry the judge is. It’s a breach of right to private and family life. That seemed to me to be fundamentally wrong, so we are working to have the laws changed.”
Stephens’ attraction to such causes stems, on one hand, from a desire to make the world a better place: “I do lots of cases in the European Court because that’s where you can make a change,” he says. On the other, he enjoys the limelight – a trait fostered from an early age; Stephens’ father was a painter with an eclectic mix of friends, including celebrities like Pink Floyd’s music publisher, Peter Barnes, who was a lodger at Stephens’ family home.
“Peter, who lodged with us for a period, said at breakfast one Sunday, ‘You know Mark, I think you should become a lawyer, they’re cool,’” Stephens recounts, adding that Barnes “tricked” him into law. Then he issues a warning to law students who think they can combine their artistic side with a legal career: “It’s a kind of starry-eyed nirvana, but it’s just not true. If anyone suggests that in interview I show them the exit.”
In a rare indulgence of his creative side, Barnes helped Stephens to spend a summer on tour with Pink Floyd when he was 17 – in the capacity of roadie. “It was good fun, but I was promised hot and cold running groupies, and that was a con. Actually they weren’t interested in the road crew. There was a complete class divide, like the difference between royalty and a commoner. You’re not allowed to even look at the band. I attempted to speak to them once – a cheery hello – but they ignored me,” he recalls.
Stephens has never been intimidated by class or celebrity, despite, he says as he finishes the last spoonful of creamy leek and potato soup, being the only child in his year to receive free school meals. When Stephens and Colin Firth were collecting their respective CBEs last year, he approached Firth with the line: “My wife’s got the hots for you. In fact she’s put her big Bridget Jones pants on especially”. Mortified, his wife said she couldn’t meet Firth after the information was divulged.
His saucy wit has never led Stephens into a major disagreement, though. “People think I just shoot off from the hip, but I usually think about things quite carefully, and I’m not afraid to ask around,” he says, continuing: “I’m probably more outspoken about the judiciary than anyone else. If you speak honestly then people can’t take offence. To prick someone’s pomposity – that’s the way to do it.”
Mark and Emily ate lunch at Finers Stephens Innocent, in a little meeting room on a large round table
Starter: Leek and potato soup with fresh seeded bread rolls and cheese twists
Main: Posh fish and chips – Sea-bass with pea puree, braised leeks and potato wedges
Dessert: Cheese board and selection of fruit
To drink: Vintage white wine