By the time Heather Rogers, who has died of a pulmonary embolism aged 64, became a Queen’s (now King’s) counsel in 2006, she had established herself as one of the leading media law barristers of her generation.
A champion of free speech, with many successes as a defendant barrister acting on behalf of news organisations, she was a strict adherent to the “cab rank” rule and acted for claimants and others as well, taking cases against publications that had over-stepped the mark.
Her death leaves much unfinished business. In a case that was due to go to trial later this month, she was representing the gay rights activist Simon Blake, the drag entertainer Crystal (Colin Seymour) and the writer and broadcaster Nicola Thorp in litigation against the actor turned political activist Laurence Fox. The trio are suing Fox for libel over tweets calling them “paedophiles” and he has brought counterclaims against them for describing him as a “racist”.
Judgment has also yet to be given in a case in which Heather represented Bermuda Press, publishers of the Royal Gazette, in the Bermuda high court in June, seeking to overturn an injunction blocking the paper from reporting an affidavit from a lawyer about work he did for an American billionaire, even though the document was publicly available.
In 2020, she acted for the nephews of Sir Frederick Barclay over allegations that they had planted listening devices to spy on him and his daughter at the Ritz hotel – the case was settled.
In the same year she acted for the Media Lawyers’ Association in the supreme court case of Serafin v Malkiewicz, which confirmed a reduced burden on journalists who are trying to advance a “public interest” defence to publication, introduced in the Defamation Act 2013.
She also represented Times Newspapers when it paid £180,000 damages to the former Conservative party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas following a high court libel action over articles that appeared in the Sunday Times in 2012 suggesting that he charged £250,000 to set up meetings with David Cameron.
And in 2010 she acted for the Guardian in a successful appeal to lift a superinjunction obtained by Howard Donald of Take That against his former girlfriend Adakini Ntuli.
Born in Wolverhampton, in the West Midlands, Heather was the daughter of Olga (nee Ingram) and George, a carpenter. She attended Wolverhampton high school for girls and went on to study law at the London School of Economics, later coming first in her year in the bar exams.
Called to the bar by Middle Temple in 1983, she practised from three leading libel sets, 10 South Square (now 5 Raymond Buildings and known as 5RB), 1 Brick Court, and Doughty Street Chambers, where she became head of the media law team.
Later, having briefly taken an in-house job at Robert Maxwell’s Evening News, she was among the founding members in 2000 of Matrix Chambers.
As a junior barrister Heather was involved in many of the celebrated cases in the heyday of British libel law in the 1980s and 90s, frequently working with Charles Gray and George Carman. Her mastery of language was often a key factor in their successes.
She acted for the Observer against the attorney general in the 1990 Spycatcher breach of confidence litigation in the wake of the publication in Australia of Peter Wright’s book about his work for MI5. In 1993 she represented Times Newspapers in a landmark House of Lords case against Derbyshire county council, which established that governmental bodies cannot sue for libel, as it is important that they should be open to uninhibited public criticism.
She was also part of the defence team, led by Richard Rampton, that successfully represented Penguin Books in the 2000 libel trial brought by the historian David Irving in relation to the book Denying the Holocaust, written by the American academic Deborah Lipstadt.
Gray, by then a judge of the high court, ruled that it was “incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier”. The case was dramatised in the 2016 film Denial, with Jackie Clune playing the part of Heather, although as one barrister friend observed, “her small role in the film was inversely proportionate to the amount of work she did in the case”.
On several occasions when she lost cases, Heather nonetheless succeeded on appeal in reducing the high damages awarded by juries. After losing a libel case brought by Elton John over an article in the Sunday Mirror that alleged he was suffering from bulimia, she acted successfully to cut his damages from £300,000 to £75,000, marking the end of the era of huge libel payouts.
On the claimant side, Heather acted in Roman Polanski’s 2005 libel action against Vanity Fair over an article alleging he tried to seduce a Scandinavian model on his way to Sharon Tate’s funeral (the jury awarded him £50,000 in damages), and in 2006 she successfully represented George Galloway against the Telegraph over articles alleging he had been in the pay of Saddam Hussein.
At the 2003 Hutton inquiry into the death of the weapons expert David Kelly she was counsel for the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, whose reports had suggested that the prime minister Tony Blair had deliberately misled parliament with the claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.
Despite her sparkling talent, Heather’s quiet modesty meant she was not always accorded the recognition she deserved, and might have expected to take silk earlier than 2006.
Always keen to push the law to enhance freedom of speech and access to information, she was a director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, a trustee of Article 19, and worked with the Media Legal Defence Initiative on free speech issues. She was also a co-author of a leading textbook on defamation law and an architect of the Defamation bill drafted in 2010 by Lord (Anthony) Lester of Herne Hill, which was the forerunner of the Defamation Act 2013.
In 2019 Heather married the television producer Julie Edwards; they had been together for 25 years.
They lived in London and in Walberswick, Suffolk, where Heather enjoyed valuable “head space” and fresh air, walking on the beach. A fan of the theatre, opera and cinema, she was also an ardent cat lover and talented pianist, who recently taught Julie to play the duet Everybody Wants to Be a Cat from Walt Disney’s Aristocats.
She is survived by Julie, and by her brother, Paul.