Here we consider the case of John Browne and the matter of his legal dispute with Associated Newspapers the publishers of the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, and the Evening Standard.

Who is John Browne?

John Browne, now commonly known as the Lord Browne, thanks to the award of a life peerage as the Baron Browne of Madingley, and otherwise known as 'The Sun King', has been described as "one of the towering figures of the British business community". Browne has spent more or less his entire working career in the employment of British Petroleum (BP) where he rose through the corporate ranks to become group chief executive in 1995. It was Browne who engineered the 1998 merger with Amoco and the subsequent acquisitions of Atlantic Richfield in 1999 and Burmah Castrol in 2000, and thereby transformed BP from a struggling oil firm into perhaps the most successful energy businesses in the world and certainly the biggest company in Britain.

Of course Browne's reputation has become somewhat tarnished of late thanks to a leaky pipeline at the company's Prudhoe Bay oilfield in Alaska and the little matter of an explosion at its Texas City refinery which killed fifteen of its employees. An inquiry by the US Chemical Safety Board was highly critical of the company's safety culture (or lack thereof), whilst there have also been allegations that the company had tried to corner the market in propane gas. As a result in January 2007 it was agreed that Browne would step down as group chief executive in July 2007 rather than continue until his official retirement date in February 2008.

It is probably also worth mentioning that John Browne is, as more than one newspaper has pointed out, "Tony Blair's favourite businessman". It was Blair that awarded Browne his knighthood in 1998 and then made him a 'People's Peer' in 2001. In fact the relationship between the company and Downing Street has been regarded in some quarters as so cosy that the company was nicknamed as 'Blair Petroleum', and there have been various rumours circulating of late that Blair would be joining the board of BP, or that Blair and Browne had plans to establish their own venture capital business.

Gay Sex

It is at this point that we must turn to the question of John Browne's sexuality. It has been common knowledge that Browne was a 'confirmed bachelor', 'lived with his mother' for many years, and is known for his 'passion for opera', statements which are often (rightly or wrongly) interpreted as meaning that the individual concerned is homosexual. The Financial Times once directly put the question to him, to which he replied "You have got the wrong man there." Although as it happens the Financial Times was bang on target, it was simply that Browne was in no mood at the time to give an honest answer. According to the Daily Telegraph, Browne later pondered the question of whether or not he should 'come out', and once intended to do so during an appearance on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, but in the end decided not go through with it because he didn't want to upset his mother.

Browne's mother subsequently passed away, but Browne remained reticent on the subject until the year 2002 when he met "a handsome young Canadian" by the name of Jeff Chevalier. It soon became clear within the upper echelons of BP that Chevalier and Browne were 'an item'. They appeared together at various drinks parties and company social functions, and Chevalier occasionally accompanied his friend on business trips and at various social engagements during which he was introduced to various New Labour luminaries. Chevalier, who thirty years Browne's junior, was provided with clothing and accommodation etc at a "fairly luxurious level" together with certain amounts of cash in return for companionship and whatever other services were rendered.

What now appears to be clear is that this relationship was not a secret; it was well known within the company, the industry and to many journalists. But not, of course to the general public, since no one in the media had any particular reason to make any reference to it. To be blunt, despite being the head of a such a global giant such as BP, no one was interested in Browne's private life. He was merely a businessman. Had be been a Big Brother contestant, of course, it would have been an entirely different matter.

The relationship appears to have run its course by early 2006 and Chevalier returned to Canada were he was faced with various problems such as adjusting to a lower standard of living and finding himself a job. Although Browne was willing to help ease the transition and funded the purchase of a year's lease on a flat in Toronto amongst other things, it seems that there were limits to his generosity and whatever help provided was regarded as insufficient. According to John Trickey, a Canadian media executive, who had been Chevalier's previous boyfriend, client, whatever, his young friend wanted or believed that he was entitled to the sum of £300,000, but Browne seemed reluctant to part with such a sum. In consequence on Christmas Eve 2006 Chevalier sent Browne an email which read;

"I have nothing left to lose ... I am facing hunger and homelessness after four years of sharing your lifestyle ... the least I am asking for is some assistance ... please respond ... I do not want to embarrass you in any way but I am being cornered by your lack of response to my myriad attempts at communication."

Chevalier does not appear to have received a satisfactory response to this message and therefore ended up talking to the Mail on Sunday. It is fairly certain that money changed hands. The Mail intended running the story on Sunday 7th January and contacted the BP press office in order to allow Browne the opportunity to comment on the allegations to be made therein. John Browne was on holiday in the Caribbean at the time and received a phonecall from BP's head of press alerting him to the Mail's story. Browne promptly reached for his lawyers and on the 6th January obtained an interim injunction against Associated Newspapers Ltd. The case was then fought out behind closed doors.

What's the Story?

The Mail on Sunday remains adamant that "story we originally sought to publish was a business story involving issues of great importance to shareholders and employers of BP". Exactly what this story was the Mail is unable to confirm as Browne was indeed granted an injunction preventing its publication. We can however say that amongst the "issues of great importance" was an allegation of the misuse of company resources by Browne, in that he used company funds to support his gay lover. (In particular that Browne had used BP's resources to help Chevalier set up a company engaged in the business of selling mobile phone ring-tones which ultimately failed.) We can say this with some certainty since Browne has issued a categorical denial of any "allegations of improper conduct relating to BP" whilst Peter Sutherland, the chairman of BP, also issued a statement that the board had carried out a review of the evidence and concluded that the allegations made were "unfounded or insubstantive".

There also appear to be various other allegations of impropriety by Browne. These include an allegation that he paid his Italian builders in cash in order to avoid paying the VAT, together with statements that various conversations took place between Browne and various high ranking politicians, such as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, during which things were said which might prove embarrassing to one or more of the parties concerned. Oh yes and Chevalier seemingly ended up in possession of a BP laptop.

John Browne sought to prevent the Mail on Sunday from publishing its story by claiming that the publication of such information breached his right to a private life under the Human Rights Act, in that the story was derived entirely from information provided by his former lover, Jeff Chevalier.

Criminal Contempt

It seems that in order to avoid embarrassment the pair had at one time agreed that they should stick to the story that they met by chance whilst Browne was jogging in Battersea Park not far from his "luxury London home". This version of events being subsequently repeated by Mr Browne in a number of sworn statements he made to the court. As Browne now admits, this was "an untruthful account", since they had in fact met through a "gay dating website". Thanks to The Sun we can reveal that the website in question was which apparently "features pictures of men in bizarre fetish gear", and that in this case 'dating' appears to be a euphemism for the provision of escort services.

It as at this point that many might ask, so what? Since, of course, it scarcely matters whether or not John Browne had a relationship with Jeff Chevalier or indeed whether or not he told a little white lie to cover up his embarrassment over the exact circumstances of their meeting. And indeed if that was all there was to it, there would be no story. However the point was that Browne maintained this "untruthful account" of their first meeting specifically in order to undermine Chevalier's credibility as a witness, by asserting that Chevalier's own (and as we now know entirely truthful) account was a lie. Browne also made further claims that Chevalier had a major problem with dependence on alcohol and illegal drugs which rendered him mentally unstable and thus an entirely unreliable witness.

As it happened Chevalier was seeking medical treatment for anxiety and panic attacks and was therefore able to produce medical records which clearly demonstrated that he wasn't dependent on either alcohol or illegal drugs. One must also assume that he was also able to produce evidence that demonstrated that his account and not Browne's was the accurate one. It was at this point that David Eady, otherwise known as Mr Justice Eady, who was presiding over the case of Browne v. Associated Newspapers Ltd, became rather upset and annoyed. Now it is probably true that perjury is fairly commonplace throughout the legal system, although in civil actions judges do have certain expectations of those who give evidence before them, particularly those individuals who have been twice honoured by Her Majesty, and make much of that fact when doing so.

In consequence in delivering his eleven page judgement on the 1st May 2007, Mr Justice Eady made reference to what he described as the "wholesale attack" that had been made on Chevalier's credibility and concluded that Browne had "deliberately sought to mislead the court and thereby committed a criminal contempt of court or, perhaps, attempted to pervert the course of justice". However he decided, for the time being at least, not to refer the matter to the Attorney General for possible prosecution on the grounds that it was "probably sufficient penalty that the claimant's behaviour has had to be mentioned in this judgment. (Along the way Mr Justice Eady noted that he would "certainly be careful in taking anything the Claimant says at face value", which of itself was fairly damaging to Browne's reputation.)

This was essentially the story that broke on the 1st May and which prompted John Browne's immediate resignation as Group Chief Executive of BP, which he claimed was "voluntary step" he had made in order "to avoid unnecessary embarrassment and distraction to the company at this important time". Oddly enough this news had no effect whatsoever on the company share price.

This all naturally excited the interest of the nation's press which went to print on the 2nd May 2007 with headlines such as 'BP chief resigns after lying over affair with gay lover' (Daily Mail), 'BP's Browne quits over court lie' (The Guardian), 'BP boss quits after lying to protect his privacy' (The Independent), 'Humiliation of BP chief over gay affair' (Daily Telegraph), and 'Lie over gay partner ends BP chief’s career' (The Times). The Daily Express took a slightly more populist line with 'BP Chief Quits in Rent Boy Scandal', whilst The Sun had 'Petrol Giant Rocked - Tycoon and the Rent Boy' and the Daily Mirror ran with the more low key 'Silly Old Fuel', presumably with the intention of minimising any collateral embarrassment to the man whose favourite businessman he was.

There did appear to be a reservoir of sympathy for John Browne, with some believing that he was the victim of homophobia, and casting Jeff Chevalier as the blackmailing villain of the piece. Writing in The Times, Matthew Parris made a valiant attempt to dismiss the whole affair as a "juicy bit of tittle-tattle", and claimed that Browne had behaved "honourably" throughout. Others however focused on what (as it might well be argued) was the central point in the whole affair, namely that Browne "deliberately sought to mislead the court". Or as Jeff Randall in the Daily Telegraph put it, "Browne lied under oath and the weight of his falsehood has crushed him", arguing that what mattered was that Browne lied under oath, and not what motivated him to do so. Many would however have sympathy for the position of Andrew Murray-Watson who made the point in the Independent on Sunday, that perhaps Browne should have resigned back in 2005 when fifteen of his employees met their end at the Texas City refinery, and that it is a strange world in which we live when perjury is regarded as more heinous offence that corporate manslaughter.

So where does this leave John Browne?

His abrupt departure from BP means that he will lose a 'golden goodbye' payment of £3.5 million, together with his entitlements under the executive share plan which potentially might have brought him another £12 million. It is also expected that he will now be obliged to resign from his positions as non-executive director of the investment bank Goldman Sachs (where he is chairman of the audit committee) and as chairman of the private equity firm Apax Partners. Whatever hopes he may have had of boosting his retirement income with a series of non-executive directorships with blue-chip companies may also have disappeared. On the plus side Browne will have his BP Pension to fall back on (reportedly at £1 million plus per annum), whilst he is also said to be writing his memoirs, and any would be publishers are now presumably mentally adding a zero to the projected sales figures.

On the other hand whilst the judge may not have been minded to refer the matter to the Attorney General, the Mail on Sunday is of a different opinion and has announced that it is submitting its own complaint to the Attorney General who, in turn, has promised that the matter will be given every serious consideration. Browne may yet find himself treading the same path as Jeffrey Archer.

As for Jeff Chevalier, he appears to be keeping his head down. Or at least no one in Fleet Street has managed to track him down and wave a chequebook in his face. The Daily Mail did establish that Chevalier had been regular contributor on the online networking website Facebook and noted that there he recommended the Woody Allen short story The Whore of Mensa as "essential reading for anyone who has ever been in a relationship with a neurotic, control freak, self-obsessed, vain person". Which may or may not be an indication of how Chevalier views the character of his former lover.

The point of law

And oddly enough in amongst the juicy tittle-tattle there was a point of law at stake. Or as Mr Justice Eady put it the, "case gives rise to relatively novel and intricate questions", particularly "the extent to which it is possible ... to resort to 'privacy' rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in order to prevent revelations which are primarily about one’s conduct in business matters".

Mr Justice Eady ruled that;

"Whether or not Mr Chevalier's allegations are accurate or exaggerated (and to an extent they seem not to be in dispute), and whether they reflect adversely on the claimant's judgment, are matters for the shareholders and board members to consider. It would be wrong for the court to prevent them finding out about it."

Which is to say that the right to privacy as enshrined in Article 8 does not extend so far as to prohibit revelations "about one’s conduct in business matters". Which is to say that you can't use the 'right to privacy' to stop your wife, husband, partner, whatever, from revealing all your dirty little secrets.


Sourced from various reports in the British media including The BBC, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, The Independent and Independent on Sunday, The Sun, etc.