A legal saga that has been gripping America reached its climax this week, reports The Wrap. The professional "wrestling legend", Hulk Hogan, has triumphed over gossip website Gawker in a landmark privacy suit that will chill every tabloid publisher. Hulk sued the Gawkerfor publishing a clip from a graphic sex video filmed during a 2006 tryst with the then-wife of his friend, shock-jock Todd "Bubba the Love Sponge" Clem.
The story had elements of farce: an accompanying article dwelt imaginatively on the size of the 6ft 7in wrestler's penis. But, for Gawker, the astronomical $140m damages bill is anything but funny, says The Independent. "The Hulk Hogan trial has become the most hazardous moment in the iconoclastic website's history."
The case has wide ramifications. As the Financial Times notes, it has become "a talking point in the presidential campaign" because it highlights Donald Trump's plan "to make it easier to prosecute the media". Yet it also sheds fascinating light on Gawker's idiosyncratic founder, Nick Denton a British media enfant terrible who, as the Hulk confessed to The New York Post, "scared the hell out of me" during the trial. "He just sat there staring."
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Hogan's depiction of Denton as a "puppet master" terrorising an innocent public chimes with his villainous image stateside. "There exists in the collective media mind a caricature of Denton as an evil, soulless, Machiavellian puppeteer: the Wizard of Blogs," observed The New Yorker in 2010. "He's not, like, a sociopath, but you kind of have to watch what you're doing around him," says the boss of a rival site. Others have variously described the Gawker boss as "the kind of person who leaves his own party in search of a better one", or "a character out of Dr Seuss". "Nick is a bit of a sphinx on purpose," one of his writers once remarked. "He has some of the attributes of the dork who wraps his Asperger's around him like a cloak."
Denton's background isn't that of the average tabloid editor. Born in 1966 in Hampstead, the son of an economics professor and a Hungarian psychotherapist, he studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford in the 1980s and became a staffer on the FT. Despatched to San Francisco in 1998 to cover the dotcom frenzy, he went native teaming up with others to form First Tuesday, which briefly flourished as a network linking start-ups with financial backers and was sold, in timely fashion, in 2000 for £33m.
Denton's share of the spoils went into Gawker, whose "snarky" tone, while familiar in Britain, caused convulsions in America, says The Independent. He now presides over "an archipelago" of seven sites, including the tech blog Gizmodo. "Gawker's voice is very much Nick's voice," says a friend. "He's compulsively anti-hypocrisy."Indeed, a central plank of the site's defence against Hogan was that he had already made his sex life a public matter "by boasting widely about his carnal exploits".
Can Gawker survive its $140m rap? A recent investment deal may help. But Denton, who immediately penned a trenchant polemic denouncing the "sham" trial, doesn't intend to find out. "We will have our day in the appeals court," he vows. "And we will be vindicated."
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