‘We have a great story to tell as human species’
OVER THE PAST
few months, wealthy South Africans and high profile people have been trying to gag the media to prevent information about them being published in newspapers. John Campbell has been at the forefront of ensuring that the media can tell people’s stories by defending freedom of speech.
On the surface it appears that Campbell, with his office resembling that of a university lecturer, is an intellectual not cut out to be a top lawyer. However, Campbell is one of SA’s best lawyers, who is fixated on law and doing a great deal in dealing with his high-profile cases. He’s represented a number of media houses and practitioners in cases that involve prominent people. He’s represented the Mail & Guardagainst ian Imvume Holdings, which was trying to gag the weekly newspaper from reporting its involve-
ment in the Oilgate scandal. Campbell sees himself as a general practitioner of law.
Campbell mostly represents media houses and says: “It’s incidental that lawyers manage to capture media attention. Sometimes the media is interested in a particular case and you happen to be there.”
He believes that great lawyers are born from hard work and long hours. Campbell, who grew up in Cape Town, was never influenced by his parents to study law.
He says that it’s always a tactical mistake in a trial for a lawyer to be a centrepiece of the case, as it’s supposed to be the witness who’s either doing well or bad.
Being a celebrity lawyer you’re always likely to encounter challenges. “The challenge for all of us in this job is to, firstly, do the best you can possibly do for your client and certainly do it within the framework of our legal systems and the values of our Constitu- tion. And not mislead your clients.”
Campbell doesn’t like to be seen as acting as a public relations person for his high-profile clients. He says: “I’ll never talk to the press about my clients’ cases.” He’s not amused by media hype surrounding prominent trials. “But there will always be hype from the media about people involved in high-profile cases,” he says.
Campbell, a senior member of the Johannesburg Bar, says that small human dramas found in every case create the magic in the law profession. He ranks SA’s judiciary among the world’s best. “I’m inspired by real stories of great predecessors in our profession, such as the late Issy Maisels and Arthur Chaskalson. Those are people who used their skills constructively in this world.”
Asked what he thinks about celebrity lawyers, he replies: “I’m not one of those people who think that lawyers are the star actors in the stage of society. People shouldn’t overestimate the role of lawyers in our society, because they play a supporting role.”
Campbell likes to read old and current history books. “We have a great story to tell as human species.”