Gravity: an interview with a very down to earth space lawyer

Posted in Interviews on 28 Feb 2014

Our vision is to be the first legal recruitment specialist to place a lawyer on the moon. Sure it's reach for the stars alright but why not? Lawyers are already debating about mineral rights and salvage and what about the potential for space traffic accidents with all those satellites out there? Still not sure?

Meet Tony Ballard, Partner at Harbottle and Lewis. Tony is recognised as a leading broadcasting lawyer and telecommunications lawyer by the independent legal directories. He is also a Member of the Royal Television Society, an Arbitrator on the international panel of the Independent Film & Television Alliance and Chairman of the UK branch of the European Centre for Space Law.

You read English Literature and Social Anthropology at Cambridge. What made you become a Lawyer? 

The original motivation was purely mercenary.  But that was rapidly superseded by the intrinsic attraction of the law itself.  Far from finding the professional  training course tedious, I was thrilled to acquire the tools of a trade.

Tell us about your firm, Harbottle & Lewis. 

I first knew Harbottle & Lewis as a West End competitor to my own firm, Allison & Humphreys, in the City.  Both firms had substantial practices in the film and entertainment sectors.  Harbottle & Lewis acted for the talent and we acted for the studios and broadcasters.  Allison & Humphreys merged with Field Fisher Waterhouse in the late 1990s.  After nearly 10 years with them, I joined my former rivals, who by this time had established a (if not the) leading entertainment practice in London with an unparalleled suite of sectoral specialisms.  I was able to add my own specialisms to the list.

Tell us about your role as a Broadcasting and Telecommunications Partner. 

I acted for the BBC as one of its external solicitors for over 30 years.   I came to understand something of how its business worked.  When it was sued for patent infringement after the introduction of colour television, I was sent to the Engineering Secretariat to be taught the physics of the colour triangle and how colour components were added to the monochrome signal.  When it developed a microcomputer, I was brought in to advise over problems that arose.  And one summer I commuted first class between London and Los Angeles to conduct litigation over the annual renewal of the Dallas series.  I was a member of its short-lived DBS Directorate. 

Then I took six or seven years out to learn about orbital mechanics and frequency management and to advise BSB on its DBS franchise.  We took delivery of two high power satellites in orbit.  After BSB merged with Sky, I got into telecoms and the enormous investments that were made to build alternative networks.  I learned about the physics of signal attenuation in twisted copper pairs and wrote one of the seminal papers that brought local loop unbundling to the industry and broadband to the home.  I headed up FFW’s telecoms group before moving to Harbottle & Lewis to focus on broadcasting again, not programme production and talent but the business of disseminating programmes over the air, by satellite, cable and the internet and to mobiles, laptops and other connected devices.  I spend a lot of time talking to Ofcom and other regulators on behalf of industry players.

Your role, I believe, also incorporates advising satellite operators and being involved in the Outer Space Act and Space Treaty issues. This certainly is a very niche area. What is the future for this area of law, will more and more people start to specialise in it as technology advances etc? 

I have been involved with clients in the satellite sector since the early 1980s, not so much in programme distribution, although that is a part of my work, but the business of launching and operating satellites and striking deals for the use of capacity.  It is an infrastructure business with a difference.  One of the differences is that the sector is regulated internationally under the outer space treaties, which were not written with private enterprise in mind and which are sometimes difficult to reconcile with national legislation.  Our Outer Space Act 1986 was introduced to implement the treaties by passing HMG’s treaty liabilities on to anyone directly involved with a space venture, unlike other space-faring countries which shared risks with operators instead of requiring them to bear them.  Over the years, this has discouraged investment in UK space operations but the government is now at last moving towards aligning UK law with the practice elsewhere.

The government is also now taking much greater interest in the space sector in other ways as well, including making substantial funds available.  The business itself is changing with much cheaper access to space, including the development of cubesats (10cm cubes weighing a kilo or so piggybacking on launches of conventional satellites).  But the orbits are getting crowded and orbital debris – defunct satellites, rocket bodies, collision debris, some manmade such as that from Chinese target practice some years ago when they hit an old weather satellite with a missile – creates both physical and legal hazards.

You are the current UK Chair of the European Centre for Space Law (ECSL) and a former Trustee of the London Institute for Space Policy and Law – did this interest in Space begin for you in your childhood?
Certainly I looked forward every week to reading the next instalment of the exploits of Dan Dare in his spaceship Anastasia, powered by a gravity drive, in the Eagle comic, now sadly as defunct as the idea of a gravity drive at least until physicists understand about dark energy in the universe.  I have an eight inch Cassegrain reflector telescope which on clear nights offers a thrilling sense of contact with our immediate galactic neighbourhood.  Seeing Saturn’s rings from one’s back garden is in equal measure uplifting and humbling.

The ECSL; what do they do and what is your role there? 

I was involved in founding ECSL at a meeting in Paris in 1989.  The idea was to bring together academic space lawyers with practitioners in the field.  Its purpose, under its Charter, is to develop and exploit space-law research and to promote knowledge of and interest in the law relating to space activities through the promotion of research.  In each Member State of the European Space Agency, ECSL members form a national section as points of contact to interface with the main ECSL administrative unit and other national sections in the implementation of its Charter.  I am the chairman of the UK national point of contact.  One of our early achievements was to convene and hold one of the first major UK conferences ever on the hazards of space debris and its legal ramifications.

You are a Blogger for the news aggregator Huffington Post; this must give you and your work great exposure...? 

Yes, I wrote a blog about how the government’s plans for promoting UK space industries may be stunted by risk issues.  It was triggered by excited talk of a mini Cape Canaveral in Wales.  I suggested that the government was missing a key point - who would be responsible if things went catastrophically wrong?  I showed how the Outer Space Act was out of line with international practice and was anything but an encouragement to investment.  I like to think that this encouraged the government to move ahead with reform.

Tell us about you – growing up, family, education, interests, career path etc 

My father, who was in the Navy, was an expert in sonar and anti-submarine weapons systems.  I won the Science prize at school when I was twelve but chose to do arts rather than sciences to be different from my elder brother who did maths and science.  My director of studies in Literature at university (Churchill College, Cambridge) was George Steiner, an inspirational teacher who tried to get us to understand the importance to civilisation of the development of quantum mechanics.  I discovered Scientific American at that time, a magazine which I think I have read from cover to cover every month since that time, looking forward to it as much as I did to my earlier weekly comic, the Eagle and Dan Dare.  I suppose this has all had some influence on my career choices in the practice of the law.

A little known fact about you is that you advised on the development of the original format of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire; have you ever wanted to appear on Master Mind with your specialist subject being, of course, Space? 

If I had taken a royalty instead of legal fees for my work on that programme format I would be rich. 

I don’t think I would want to be interrogated on my knowledge of space because the more you learn about it, the more you realise you do not know.  That is the nature of the topic anyway.  When the expansion of universe was found to be accelerating a few years ago, it was necessary to hypothesise that it was driven by some form of energy which, applying Einstein’s principle of the equivalence of mass and energy, allowed physicists to calculate that two thirds of the mass of the universe was attributable to it – but it is invisible.  Most of the rest is dark matter, whose gravitational effects can be detected but that too is invisible.  We cannot see more than about five per cent of the universe around us.  So a degree of humility in the presence of nature is required as well.

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