Mr X & the Art of Scaring People With Lawyers
The bumbling story a mystery man, his lawyer, a private investigator... and the woman they refuse to believe.
I wasn’t going to write a newsletter today because I’ve been writing too many Webworms. Between missives on death and looking back at being filled up to my eyeballs with ketamine, it felt like today was a day of no writing.
But then I read a legal threat sent to on Instagram account that I really admire. The threat made me laugh, then it made me angry.
As I went to bed and slept, the threat must have kept banging around in my subconscious — because I woke up feeling annoyed.
Now — some background. As I’m sure you’re aware, the #MeToo movement kicked into action in 2017, when Harvey Weinstein was finally outed as being an atrocious sex troll.
Never mind that Seth MacFarlane had been cracking knowing jokes about Weinstein forever — finally, thanks to a number of brave women speaking up, the fact he’d abused his power for years in a number of objectively disgusting ways could no longer be ignored.
While Harvey being locked up was a great win, I’d also argue it was a loss in that it made a lot of people kinda go, “Oh good, this proves people can’t get away with things now, problem solved.”
Call me crazy, but I’d argue abusers are still out there doing their thing in the movie business, and beyond. Marilyn Manson isn’t in prison: he’s on stage with Kanye West. Harvey was a scapegoat for a bunch of people to carry on, undeterred.
I had a similar confusing response when Ghislaine Maxwell was found guilty, too. I mean great — guilty on five of the six counts levelled at her. She should be locked in a cell for as long as possible.
But in those guilty verdicts I also wondered how many people in that world of Epstein were breathing a sigh of relief: “That’s dealt with now. Jeffrey and Ghislaine are done. The public has their demons. We’re safe. Nothing more is going to come from this.” I imagine a world where she got off, somehow — and part of me wonders if the social outcry in response would led to even more people involved in that world falling, too. Prince Andrew might be squirming even more.
I guess my point in saying this is that so much more work has to be done in holding people to account. And that’s where Beneath the Glass Ceiling comes in.
Beneath the Glass Ceiling started in Australia — an anonymous account that would repost stories of harassment, abuse of power, bullying and inequality within the music industry.
Three months later, a New Zealand account was started, too: Beneath the Glass Ceiling NZ:
“Beneath the Glass Ceiling NZ is run by people who wish to give a voice to those who have been silenced by the injustices that exist within the Aotearoa music industry.
The stories and experiences shared here are not our own: our aim is to provide a safe space for people to share their experiences, connect them with valuable resources for recovery, and generate awareness of the broader issues prevalent within the music industry.”
No-one knows who runs the account, besides those running the account. Its admins are anonymous. Their posts have directly and indirectly lead to changes in structure and careers that would otherwise have gone on, unchallenged.
Observing from a distance, I’ve been impressed that the account has remained respectful to those who have submitted stories, but also been careful in a legal sense too — making sure their posts are measured, with context given and certain things redacted.
So when an anonymous man they’d posted about decided to get a lawyer to shut them up, I became interested.
Meet Mr X
You can read about what happened on Beneath the Glass Ceiling NZ’s Instagram page — but in short, it appears one of the industry men mentioned by Beneath the Glass Ceiling NZ (I’ll refer to it as BTGC from now on) took exception to the fact.
They weren’t mentioned by name (the account is careful not to print names before anything is proven in court) — but clearly they didn’t like their alleged behaviour being described, so lawyered up.
That lawyer appears to have done some of their own digging, claiming to have found the woman who runs BTGC — New Zealand creative Shelley Te Haara.
The thing is… Shelley says she doesn’t run the account. She told me this, and she told BTGC this. I believe her — and will expand on this further in a bit.
This is the letter Shelley got served on her doorstep (by a private investigator — we’ll get to him soon):
1. We act for a client who at this stage, for very understandable reasons, does not want his identity disclosed to you. For that reason, we will refer to our client as X.
2. As a result of detailed investigations carried out, you have been identified as the person who runs and is responsible for the Instagram page called Beneath the Glass Ceiling - NZ (BTGC-NZ). We note that you have close ties to the music industry.
3. X is the subject of an extremely defamatory and damaging post on BTGC-NZ. In fact, a review of BTGC-NZ indicates that the vast majority of the posts are defamatory of those who are the subject of those posts.
4. We acknowledge that you do not identify to whom the posts relate or refer but the information included in the posts on BTGC-NZ is more than sufficient to lead to the identification of those who are referred to/defamed in the posts. The posts relating to high profile radio personnel are just one recent example of this.
5. The post about X has had a serious and significant impact on X's personal life and business affairs. If it becomes necessary, we can prove absolutely the economic losses that X has suffered as a direct result of the postings on BTGC-NZ.
6. In addition to being defamatory, the post about X and others are in breach of the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 in a number of serious ways.
7. We have provided advice to X that a claim brought against you seeking significant damages for defamation would be completely successful. None of the defences such as truth or honest opinion could be raised or relied on by you.
8. Similarly, it is beyond doubt that a Court would find that you have breached the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 which would result in you being ordered to disable the online material, to refrain from such conduct in the future and further that you be ordered not to encourage any other persons to engage in such communications.
9. Given that you have gone to significant lengths to conceal your identity as the person responsible for BTGC-NZ we imagine that you are well aware both of the defamatory nature of the posts and that such posts breach the Harmful Digital Communications Act.
10. X does not wish to identify you publicly as the person responsible for BTGC-NZ, nor does X wish to harm your career or future which would be the inevitable result if you were to be “outed” as the person responsible for the BTGC-NZ. For this reason, X has instructed us to write to you and advise that if you delete all posts on BTGC-NZ that are either defamatory or breach the Harmful Digital Communications Act or both within three days from the date this letter is served on you, X will not take any further steps. However, If you do not do so, we can confirm that Court action will follow that will inevitably include identifying you as the person responsible for BTGC-NZ.
11. No doubt you are best placed to evaluate the consequences for you personally, your business and aspirations should you be connected with BTGC-NZ. We would recommend that you seek legal advice, and we would be happy to discuss this with any lawyers that you may have instructed. However, we stress that the continued publication of this defamatory material about X continues to cause X harm both personally and economically, and X's clear expectation is that BTGC-NZ will be deleted absolutely within three days of your receipt of this letter. That timeframe is simply not negotiable.
12. You have been served personally so that if the need arises, we can prove to the Court that service has been effected on you and that time runs from the date and time of that service and that you have failed to comply with our request.
The first thing Shelley did when she read this was contact UTGC, to tell them what was going on.
The first thing I did when I finished reading this was question if this was a real lawyer. After a bit of my own poking, I confirmed that yes — they are a real lawyer.
But the letter they wrote is a bit of a joke. It’s ridiculous, actually. Here are some of the bits that really stood out to me:
1. The mystery client:
“We act for a client who at this stage […] does not want his identity disclosed to you. For that reason, we will refer to our client as X.”
I’m sorry — what? You are representing a mystery man? How the fuck can I begin to deal with you in a logical way if your client is literally making themselves out to be a James Bond villain, or that dude in The X-Files that Mulder and Scully would summon by placing a taped “X” in the window?
2. Very serious ways:
“In addition to being defamatory, the post about X and others are in breach of the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 in a number of serious ways.”
The lawyer claims BTGC is breaching the Harmful Digital Communications Act (a piece of legislation that lets police prosecute for various types of online abuse and harassment, as they would a physical crime) — but refuses to say in what ways.
How lazy is this lawyer? I mean at least come up with one way. But no, they just went with “a number of serious ways.”
Maybe, just maybe, it’s because they have no valid reasons to list? Looking at the Harmful Digital Communications Act myself, it’s a real stretch to say it’s been breached by BTGC:
Looking at 2(g): “The context in which the digital communication appeared” is important. I’d argue the context is that it was anonymous — therefore making a claim of “targeted harm” a tall order.
3. Delete it all:
“X has instructed us to write to you and advise that if you delete all posts on BTGC-NZ”
Oh okay, so Mr X (whoever the fuck you are) doesn’t just want the material deleted about him (and how could it be, if he won’t say who he is) — he wants all the material on the account to be removed.
Oh, okay. Totally makes sense.
And in a way it does make sense in Mr X’s logic, because if he isn’t identifying himself, then I guess technically all anonymous posts could be referring to him, right? So they all have to go. Just in case.
God I want to scream at how stupid this is.
4. It’s all defamatory!
“A review of BTGC-NZ indicates that the vast majority of the posts are defamatory of those who are the subject of those posts.”
This is one of those sentences that reads as logical until you realise that in context, it’s the opposite.
There’s no way that the lawyer for X can say that “the vast majority of the posts” on BTGC are defamatory unless they somehow have direct knowledge of the identities and actual facts of every event described.
Which would mean that as well as being a lawyer, they also possess some kind of psychic or God like abilities to know everything about everyone.
5. This is not a threat, but also this is definitely a threat
“X does not wish to identify you publicly as the person responsible […] nor does X wish to harm your career or future which would be the inevitable result if you were to be “outed” as the person responsible […] However, If you do not do so, we can confirm that Court action will follow that will inevitably include identifying you as the person responsible for BTGC-NZ.”
Let me translate: “We don’t want to harm your career but we fucking will if you don’t do what I say!”
6. You have no defence!
“None of the defences such as truth or honest opinion could be raised or relied on by you.”
I mean of course the lawyer would say this… but truth and honest opinion can be great defences against defamation.
7. Delete your account!
“X’s clear expectation is that BTGC-NZ will be deleted absolutely within three days of your receipt of this letter.”
Not sure if you heard me earlier BUT DELETE YOUR ENTIRE ACCOUNT AND STOP ALLOWING PEOPLE A VOICE AGAINST PEOPLE LIKE ME IMMEDIATELY, EVEN THOUGH I STILL WON’T SAY WHO I AM!”
In short, what this lawyer is saying to Shelley is delightfully stupid I can’t stop thinking about it:
We won’t tell you who our client is, or what post is allegedly defamatory, so we demand you delete your entire account — immediately. Despite the fact you don’t even run the account.
Enter the private investigator
Shelley got in touch with the lawyer via email, telling them that no, they did not run BTGC. She was a supporter of the page — but didn’t run it.
This is what she got back from the lawyer, with some details why they thought they had their mark:
Beneath the Glass Ceiling — Defamatory Content
1. We refer to your 13 December 2021 email in which you deny being responsible for the Beneath the Glass Ceiling — NZ (BTGC-NZ) Instagram account.
2. As we advised you in our previous letter, an extensive investigation was carried out to ascertain the identity of the person responsible for BTGC-NZ. This included engaging professional private investigators. The irrefutable conclusion of that investigation was that you are the person responsible for running the account. The physical and digital evidence gathered in the course of the investigation clearly identifies you personally.
3. If you choose to let this matter proceed to Court, the private investigators who were engaged will be called to give evidence as to the investigations they carried out and why those investigations established beyond doubt your involvement with BTGC-NZ.
4. Our client has suffered, and continues to suffer, significant personal, reputational and financial loss because of the extremely defamatory and untrue material that has been posted about our client. As the person responsible for BTGC-NZ, you are responsible for these losses.
5. We have provided you with the opportunity to remove the BTGC-NZ Instagram account but you have not done so. In such circumstances, you leave us with no alternative but to issue Court proceedings. Your involvement will then become public knowledge and the Court hearing will inevitably attract significant public and media attention.
6. We are providing you with a final opportunity to engage with us confidentially either personally or through a representative. We reiterate our recommendation that you seek legal advice.
Look, this is possibly more ludicrous than the first threatening letter. The lawyer claims to have engaged “professional private investigators” to find out who runs the account.
I’m sorry, but I call bullshit on that.
I’ve been on both sides of this: For one thing, I’ve hired private investigators to help with various aspects of my documentary work. They are usually ex-detectives who use their very practical skills out there in the real world. They do very hands-on things: They wait in cars for 10 hour stretches until they can identify someone at a certain location. They ask questions. They work the phones.
The idea of a private detective being used to find out who runs an anonymous Instagram account? That’s not what they do. What — did they hack into the Instagram account and go through their DMs until they found a name? Did they gain access to a satellite system and use an IP address to physically zoom in on whoever runs the account? This isn’t Enemy of the State. This is New Zealand.
In short, there are so few ways a non-police agency could plausibly discover the identity of the person behind an Instagram account.
What PIs can be used for is to intimidate and scare people. I say this because that’s exactly what David D’Amato — the tickler — did to me. He hired some PI to follow me around to make me uneasy. They would park outside my house and watch — eventually leaving legal papers at my front door on behalf of D’Amato. Kinda like what Shelley’s PI did.
I rang the PI back in 2014 — and I’d politely describe him as the slimiest piece of shit I’d spoken to in some time. He attempted to be my friend by saying he knew a girl I went to school with. Not creepy at all. Thinking he’d established some kind of trust, he then made veiled threats that D’Amato would ruin me financially. Mike’s followup email also reeked.
This was a play by D’Amato, and he’d used the PI to make it. The PI’s name was Mike — and he’s still practicing in Auckland. I checked his website, and he hasn’t changed his promo photo in eight years. My skin crawled looking at him.
That line from Mike is still a classic in my mind:
“If you refuse to take down the content in question, Mr D’Amato will commence legal proceedings against you.”
What I’ve realised in the eight years since is that that line is just repeated by lawyers and PIs again and again. Just replace D’Amato with another asshole.
They’re all the same.
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Whatever I thought of Mr X before (whoever he is), I think even less of him for hiring this lawyer. And the PI, too.
Mr X — do better. In all aspects of your life. I’d argue you need help, but not from a lawyer.