The Stig reveals himself

06 January 2011

Ben Collins is the second man to play the part of the anonymous racing driver “The Stig” in the BBC's popular Top Gear programme.

He is also the second Stig unable to resist revealing his identity, on this occasion in a book entitled "The Man in the White Suit".  Despite the BBC’s best efforts to stop it, the book has now been published in time for the 2010 Christmas market, Morgan J having refused to grant the BBC an interim injunction to prevent publication: BBC v HarperCollins [2010] EWHC 2424.

It was clear from a number of contracts entered into between Collins’s company and the BBC that the Stig’s anonymity was a key feature of the programme and he was not meant to say who he really was. Morgan J found that while Mr Collins was not personally party to the contracts, having signed them as agent for his company, he was clearly subject to an equitable duty of confidence to the BBC.  Whether he was in breach of that duty was a matter for trial.  The issue on the injunction hearing was whether Collins should be enjoined from revealing his identity in the interim period pending a full trial.  Unfortunately for the BBC, the Stig’s identity had ceased to be confidential by the time its application reached court.  In the words of Morgan J:

In my judgment, the press coverage, in particular the press coverage in August 2010, goes well beyond speculation as to the identity of The Stig. The statements in the press that Mr Collins was The Stig would be understood by the public as statements of fact. The number of different newspapers which have stated that fact is such that the fact is now generally accessible. For all practical purposes, anyone who would have any interest in knowing the identity of The Stig now knows it. The identity of The Stig is no longer a secret and it is no longer confidential information.

The BBC tried to argue that the press coverage about the Stig's identity was only speculation and there was still some confidence to protect, as in the case of Schering Chemicals v Falkman Limited [1982] 1 QB 1.  The judge found, however, thatthis was not a case where there was a residual or limited confidentiality in the information which should be protected by an injunction.  He also rejected the BBC's argument that an injunction should be granted to prevent Mr Collins from benefiting from a past misuse of confidential information even if it was no longer confidential (a springboard injunction).  The damage had been done by newspaper publications definitively identifying the Stig as Ben Collins.  Since The Stig's identity was in the public domain, it wasn't clear how further harm would be caused to the BBC if The Man in the White Suit was published.  (See further the recent case of Vestergaard Frandsen A/S v Bestnet Europe Limited [2010] FSR 2about the less glamorous subject of mosquito nets, which reviewed the springboard doctrine and also came out against the grant of an injunction.)

The judgment suggests that Ben Collins would have been unlikely to succeed at trial with an argument that he had breached his duty of confidence.  However, since the secret was out by the time of the injunction application, even a breach of contract by Collins's company and a breach of confidence by Collins himself would not afford the BBC an interim remedy.

The dispute is unlikely to go any further.  Ben Collins has got a job with Fifth Gear, Channel Five's home for retired Top Gear presenters, and can drive with his face in view.  Top Gear goes from strength to strength and it cannot be long before Stig Mark III appears.

See further section 2.5.1 of the Privacy Law Handbook

Top Gear

Stay connected and subscribe to our latest insights and views 

Subscribe Here