THE BLOG

Nigella Lawson and the Power Battles of Britain

08/01/2014 14:53 GMT | Updated 09/03/2014 09:59 GMT

There was some confusion about who and what was on trial during the case of R v Grillo and Grillo. Public figures, including a certain Prime Minister, backed #TeamNigella, even though Ms Lawson was neither defending nor prosecuting. The media focused on drug allegations, even though the crime in question was financial fraud. And while the Grillo sisters faced prison if found guilty, reputational damage to Nigella Lawson seemed a far more serious punishment, if her statement and the comment pieces that followed are anything to go by.

The confusion clears when we look at the trial as two separate cases. The first case took place in a legal court, where defendants are judged in the eyes of the law, which is designed to be free of class, race and any other prejudice. The second case took place in the "court of public opinion," where key players are judged through the media, aligned with the class and any other assumed prejudices of the intended audience.

The legal trial was relatively simple. The prosecution's case was that the Grillo sisters were guilty of defrauding their employers of £685,000, a serious offence that carries a prison sentence. The defence cast reasonable doubt on the case by demonstrating that the level of spending by the two sisters was consistent with other expenditures, that no written guidance on spending was provided, and that two key witnesses, Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson gave contradictory evidence, and so could not be treated as reliable. Morality aside, it could not be proven that the sisters committed fraud, and they were rightly acquitted, the jury taking less than nine hours to reach their verdict.

The trial in the court of public opinion was more complicated, with four defendants tried for different crimes and with different potential punishments. Saatchi was on trial for being a tyrant responsible for "intimate terrorism", both towards his wife and his staff. As far as his reputation goes, he is already seen as somewhat of a controlling mogul, so his potential punishment is very low - he has little to lose, and faced minimal media scrutiny as a result.

The sisters have been defending themselves not just against allegations of fraud, but of disloyalty, opportunism and poor judgement, and were battling on unfamiliar ground. Unlike Saatchi and Lawson, who have decades of experience dealing with the press, the Grillos were unaccustomed to performing in public. The sisters' potential punishment is professional and personal - they have made powerful enemies, may face problems finding work, and their mental and physical health has been affected.

Nevertheless it was Nigella who had the most to lose in terms of her reputation, which is why the media focused on her, and why she has claimed that this was Saatchi's intention all along. Her popular brand is built on a fragile mix of sex appeal, cleverness and decorum. Her statements, like her brand, have been strong and considered, with carefully balanced contradictions.

She is alleged to be the one who has gone to the police regarding the Grillos and gave a witness statement saying that she wanted to do her "civic duty", but then criticised the legal system when she was questioned. She outlined generous gifts she authorised for her staff, saying giving presents "pleased" her, but then described herself as "puritanical" with money. She was reported to carry herself with strength and a sense of humour in the dock, but later stated that she was deeply disturbed by the process. She referred to the Grillos as part of her family, but then said that Francesca Grillo had a "good gig", being a "cleaner who never had to clean."

She darts between positions, because her potential punishment is the death of her brand and her carefully crafted identity. She chose the right word, when in her first interview since the trial she said she will "survive" this. Although she has not been formally accused of any legal crime, it is Nigella who faced the most trouble in the court of public perception, which is why so many of her supporters were confused and incensed, calling for her to "get off."

Yet there's another reason #teamNigella has been so vocal. The Grillos' trial was essentially a power battle of the servants' word against their masters' amidst intimate revelations of the differences in class spending in contemporary British society. It is here that the two trials, one legal and one by public opinion become blurred. At what point do we stop questioning the Grillos' spending and start wondering about Lawson's, on £25,000 dresses and £18,000 birthday parties? #TeamNigella swelled in its ranks as the trial went along, picking up high profile members of the establishment, because one of their own and ergo their very own way of life was on trial.

The fact that the servants were judged to be innocent of their masters' accusations sent shockwaves through the elite, resulting in at best embarrassing displays of favouritism, and at worst exposing deep seated elitism, from Victoria Coren's eager admission that she took cocaine too (and an even more eager backtracking when the Daily Mail suggested Scotland Yard might want to take notice) to Vanessa Feltz's strikingly Victorian sounding assessment that "allowing a couple of hired hands to see too far into her personal business and enabling them to nurture ideas far beyond their station" was Nigella's undoing.

Beyond the celebrity titillation, R V Grillo and Grillo captivated the nation, because the socio-economic battle lines drawn between Lawson, Saatchi and the Grillo sisters were universally understood, regardless of station or background. What happens or doesn't happen next to the key players may well be indicative of bubbling class tensions in mixed-wealth homes and offices across the nation.