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In conversation with professional footballer Leigh Nicol on phone hacking and mental health

Posted on 16 December 2021

In November, Leigh Nicol, a professional footballer who currently plays for Crystal Palace, spoke to Associate, Alexandra Agnew, about the traumatising experience of phone hacking and the impact it had on her mental health.

In 2019, whilst playing for Charlton Athletic, Leigh's iCloud was hacked, and private content started to appear on adult websites. The incident caused so much distress that Leigh spiralled into depression, and even considered taking her own life. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions. 
Alexandra Agnew

Welcome everyone and thank you for joining this Mishcon Academy Session.  I’m Al Agnew and I will be hosting today’s event.  It’s my pleasure today to introduce Leigh Nicol.  Leigh is a professional footballer, currently playing for Crystal Palace and in 2019, when Leigh was playing for Charlton Athletic, her iCloud account was hacked and private videos and images taken when she was 18 started to appear on adult websites and were picked up by the press.  The issue rapidly snowballed, with the content being shared more and more widely and entirely beyond Leigh’s control.  Understandably, the experience was incredibly distressing.  Leigh was only 24 at the time and it caused her to spiral into a period of depression, during which she considered taking her own life.  Over the last two years, Leigh has rebuilt her life and says that she is now stronger than ever.  She is back on the football field and has been striving to use her experience to raise awareness and to destigmatise conversations around the issue of intimate image abuse or, as it’s commonly termed, revenge porn.  In fact, the term ‘revenge porn’ is a bit of a misnomer as Leigh’s experience involved neither revenge or porn but perhaps we can talk about that a little bit more later on.  For now, it’s a huge honour to introduce you, Leigh, and I wondered if you would be happy to share a little bit about our background and how your videos ended up in the public domain. 

Leigh Nicol

Yeah, thank you, thanks for inviting me on, I’m really excited.  I am from Scotland and all I’ve ever really done in life is play football so I came through the Celtic Academy system, represented Scotland at all youth age groups and then when I was 16 I made the decision to move down to London to play for Arsenal, where I done a two year scholarship, from there I then signed for Reading just to get some first team experience but alongside that I done work on the side because women’s football wasn’t where it is today so it wasn’t possible to be a professional footballer full-time and then from that I went on to Millwall and then that’s when I ended up at Charlton and that’s when life kind of went a bit sideways and went wrong and that’s when I decided to step away from football for a year.  And then through therapy and life coaching, I then decided to come back to football, about a season and a half later it was, and I signed for Crystal Palace and that’s where I’m at, at the minute and that’s my career and off the pitch, I also work for A5 Consultancy, where we work with youngsters and educating them on social media, working with them to make sure that they are the best version of themselves and respectful online and teach them how to use it properly but not being scared to take risks either because it’s really important that people don’t, don’t become robots and boring online just because they’re scared of it going wrong. 

Alexandra Agnew

I think it was in… it was in 2019 that your images and videos were leaked?  Is that right?  And…

Leigh Nicol

Yes, it was March 2019.

Alexandra Agnew, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

Okay.

Leigh Nicol

On a Saturday evening in March. 

Alexandra Agnew, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

And how did you find out that this had happened?  Where did they get the images from?

Leigh Nicol

I actually got a message request on my coaching Instagram because I was a coach at the time and I had a public profile there but it was just quite professional.  So, I got a message on that and I don’t usually look at the message request but it was really strange, I think I was just bored on a Saturday night, I was chilling, we had Manchester United the next day and it was a really big fixture for us because we were going for promotion to get to the WSL so, I just clicked on the message request and, honestly, I wish I had never done that.  The gentleman was as nice as can be and was just notifying me that he believed that there was videos of me circulating on a website called Mega NZ, which for those that don’t know what it is, it’s like a dropbox but based in New Zealand and it’s where people hold their files and then they’ll copy and paste the link and put it live on websites such like the fappening and really random and horrible websites that are used to leak iCloud hacks and stuff so, they’re out, they’re made just distress people and put people through horror really and that’s the first time and I didn’t believe it because the videos were actually made when I was 18 so, I was 23 when this happened so they had been held for five years.  I can’t really remember what I got up to five months ago let alone at 18 years old so, I was like no, I don’t have anything like that on my phone because as I… I say I got older, I know I was only 23 but it’s nothing that I’d ever… that is the first time that I’d ever done something like that and it was very private, with someone that I trusted and I never thought about it, I didn’t know they still existed.  Even though the device was clean because when I get a new device, I always clear it out and I keep the device on me but I never look at it but it had nothing on it so I assumed that anything that had been on that…

Alexandra Agnew, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

Was gone.  Did you find out who had hacked it or…?

Leigh Nicol

No.  So, for the best part of the first year of me being notified and it happening, the Police weren’t helpful at all.  They were nice, they were just nice emotionally as they could have been to me but they’ve not got the resources or the knowledge or the education because although this has been happening for years, it’s just become a really popular thing and everyone jumping on the bandwagon and we’re all so far behind what needs to be done so, I didn’t get any support in terms of well can I find out so l lived in fear that this was someone close to me that had done this because it was a really private situation to me, not many people, in fact no-one knew that they existed but it was a really private situation but I lived in fear that is it, is that friend?  Is it that friend?  And that’s where I lost all trust, I think in society and those around me and it was horrible living in that fear and the fact that the Police couldn’t confirm so, obviously the name ‘revenge porn,’ that gives away that someone’s done that to me and that was the revenge part of it, it was like someone’s done that to me close to me like because at the time, I was a nobody, like I was playing for Charlton Athletic and I had a full-time job on the side and I wasn’t a famous footballer, I wasn’t a celebrity, I was playing football three evenings a week so, when I appeared on these websites with Jennifer Lawrence, Kim Kardashian, you… in my head, I’m like I’m a nobody so this must have been someone that I knew had done this because no-one knew who Leigh Nicol was.  The stats that the Police told me was 79% of the time that this kind of thing happens, this is roughly give or take, it’s your… it’s the partner.  Then I think like 14% of the time it happens it’s someone you know and then a couple of percent of the time, it’s a completely unknown source and I just refused to believe that I was in that really small percentage.  So that was a really horrible feeling living in that fear of not knowing and not having that answer and it’s something that I’ve had to come to terms with but now we’ve managed to, a year on, when me and my friends, we continue to push and try and get answers and try and find IP addresses that it linked back to and when I had a follow-up meeting a year later with the Cyber Crime Unit, they done a little bit more digging and they clarified for me that it was… they could see that my password and my email had been part of a compromised data leak on a couple of big websites so they could, they were pretty certain that it was an unknown source and that allowed me to breathe and not, you know my friends around me.

Alexandra Agnew

When you went to the Police originally, I think you said you went to them on the Saturday night after you found out, were they able to help?

Leigh Nicol

I laugh now because it’s ridiculous but I actually called 999.

Alexandra Agnew

I think totally legit, I’d call 999.

Leigh Nicol

It was an emergency.  It was an emergency so, they just said an officer will be out to see you in the morning between 9.00 and 11.00am and I’m thinking I’ve got Manchester United tomorrow, I need to leave like, I need this removed, like this needs to be sorted so that I can play tomorrow and it just shows you how naive like I was and other people that haven’t experienced it as of the power of the internet.  Obviously, I think now, two years on, we’re all very aware of the danger of it but I genuinely believed that this, I went okay I’ll get it removed, like people won’t see it.

Alexandra Agnew

Yeah, how hard can it be?

Leigh Nicol

Yep, exactly, but I think I came off the phone and I thought, wait a minute, what do you mean 9.00 in the morning, that is about 14 hours of it just takes one person to see it and publish it somewhere else that’s maybe got a bigger trafficking system and I was having panic, I’ve never experienced panic attacks but that was my immediate reaction, I was sick, my body just went into a state of shock.  My best friend who I was living with at the time, drove me to the Police station and I met two lovely officers and they said ah, this happens all the time.  I think they said… they might have said this happened to Tulisa and I was thinking, I’m not Tulisa.  I need this sorted.  And they were like look, we can’t deal with it just now, we need to go out in the streets, it’s a Saturday evening and I thought, so you’re going to prioritise criminals over me, I’m young, I need this to go, that is me naked, that’s my private life, that is like the ultimate humiliation in life.

Alexandra Agnew

Yeah, you’re still a victim.

Leigh Nicol

When this kind of thing happens, every single minute and every single hour matters and I just got sent on my travels and the worst night of my live because I’m doing all the research myself, I’m emailing these websites trying to get it removed.  Also, there’s only one person that reached out to me at the time so at this point it’s like right okay, like we can maybe…

Alexandra Agnew
 

Electrode it. 

Leigh Nicol

Obviously, because all over the world it’s different time zones and it’s a weekend as well so, I found myself just emailing, DMing, on Twitter, doing everything I can, I was Googling victims of this, I couldn’t find any, I think I then read one blog but I could only find one blog and I read that a female said, “Finally after three years, I’ve got justice” and I thought three years, like, no, no, no, I’ve got about three hours, like I’m not hard up, that won’t be the case but we’re now two and a half years on and I’ve still not got justice so, the timing was probably exactly right but it was a horrible evening because I was in no state to function, let alone be traumatised by trying to fight these…

Alexandra Agnew

Trying to take it, get it all sorted yourself. 

Leigh Nicol

Again, it was just one Police officer that turned up on a Sunday morning at 9.30 in the morning.  He came with his notepads and you could see that he was probably a very young officer, maybe he was learning his trade and I was educating him over what I had read online about this and what it was over the last ten hours and I was like I don’t need you with your notepad right now, can you just take notes, like I need help…

Alexandra Agnew

Yeah, I need someone to sort it. 

Leigh Nicol

I need a team of people on this and he said, “Yeah, this is called revenge porn” and that’s the first time that I had heard the official name and that’s sickening in itself because I’m like I’m not, I’m not a porn star.  People might not understand the emotional attachment to that kind of name but I thought that’s the most horrible name I’ve ever heard, like revenge porn, like I can’t tell people I’m the victim of revenge porn. 

Alexandra Agnew

It sort of automatically adds to the stigma I think of it because you think not only have you done something to warrant someone taking revenge but that it’s porn so you essentially deserve all you get. 

Leigh Nicol

So but then they there are others, there’s lots of help available, you can phone the Revenge Porn Helpline, the Samaritans and but the Revenge Porn Helpline is only Monday to Friday in the working hours so, I couldn’t even contact them and again that was another whole day just me distraught, a state, pointless.  We’re fighting a battle that cannot be won alone and by individuals, it does need to be a change in law because you get one removed, it’s already been downloaded by hundreds and thousands of people, it’s already been shared on WhatsApp groups that multiplies it even more and then someone else posts it on another website and then again it happens all over again and then it’s posted on another website.  So, every time you get it removed and if you do get it removed because a lot of these websites are disgusting and they’ve got no policies in place and they just care about making money off downloads.  It’s horrible and that’s why when your law students are going to be like, are dealing with victims, it’s not a battle that you can ever promise like we’re going to win this immediately because the damage is already going to be done so, it’s like we can only, we can try our best to limit damage but it’s like process it as quickly as possible, look you need to accept it is out here and this is how we are going to, this is now how we’re going to act and this is what we’re going to do about it. 

Alexandra Agnew

You and, is it 30 other women have brought a case against well the parent company of Pornhub?  And I know that the kind of, there’s potential for damages award but I imagine that you also want to kind of force Pornhub to improve the way it regulates its content?

Leigh Nicol

Oh, a 100% so, I think there’s 34 of us and it’s all in the media and stuff anyway so, the lawsuit has been filed against Mind Geek and the main aim for me, look, would it be amazing if you can get monetary value back?  Of course, you would never turn that down, especially when you’ve come from nothing like me but it wasn’t why I signed up to this, this was, this is all about changing it so that my nieces and nephews, who are 8 and 10 at the minute, they do not go through that because you could give me whatever kind of money in my bank account but it will not heal me any further, it will not make me any happier because it’s my circle of people around me that have got me to where I have, two and a half years later, and money can’t buy those things, money can’t heal you, it can just avoid problems in many ways that lead to more problems so, everyone assumes, sorry I think we’ve got a lot more negative publicity recently but growing up from a young, young age Pornhub is the leading site, it’s legal, everyone on there wants to be on there, everyone on there is professional porn stars and they’re getting paid for their money.  Now, like I learned two and a half years ago that that is completely untrue and incorrect and they are actually leading the way for all this behaviour that’s happening and to find yourself… I’m a girl from Glasgow, brought up with just a loving family but nothing, nothing else going for me in life, to find me trending on Pornhub in the top three for a couple of weeks, honestly, I don’t have… there’s more chance of a flying pig, like, I’m looking out the window thinking it doesn’t sound real when I say that.

Alexandra Agnew

How did it happen?  Yeah.

Leigh Nicol

Kids, the younger generations, my friends and strangers, I don’t want anyone to ever be in the position that I found myself in, battling to stay alive.  I’m a survivor of it.  There’s people that have actually made the decision and they took their own life because they didn’t have the support, they couldn’t face it, it was humiliating and I totally get it and I never understood suicide until I was there myself because it’s not about hurting anyone else, it’s not about being selfish, you genuinely do not want to be here, it’s easier just to take yourself out the situation than live in this horrible world that you’ve been thrown into and just watch everyone laugh at you.  Everyone seeing things in your body that they are not entitle to see and when you’ve got Pornhub leading the way with that, it kept getting me uploaded, it kept getting posted, I’d get it removed, I’d be ignored, it would just, it would go thousands, you had millions of viewers, you had all, you had like hundreds and thousands and thousands of downloads as well so, when you’ve got a site like that making money off of something that I don’t want money off of, let alone someone else…

Alexandra Agnew

Someone else to be making money.  Yeah. 

Leigh Nicol

I will never understand it, I think that’s the, that gives me the fire and a bit like it shouldn’t be possible. 

Alexandra Agnew

You said in your press release about the Pornhub case, I think you said it really well, you said that we, as a society and as human beings, all have a responsibility to play our part and to ensure that platforms like Pornhub in that case, are run legally, legitimately and safely and that we should ask ourselves the question about how we access and interact with adult content and that we should recognise that all people that appear on adult websites are human beings and that we owe each other respect and should always ask ourselves whether we’re playing a part in sharing that and, yeah, causing disrespect, pain and suffering and I think it’s so true that you, you know, people, it’s so easy to like something or to be like this is funny and to send… we’ve all been guilty of it, so be like, oh this is funny and to kind of forward on a message and then, actually, just like you’re just kind of proliferating the problem.  

Leigh Nicol

We’ve all done it.  We’ve all done it, whether that is nudes or it could be anything in life that we’ve all played a part and society being the way it is but I do believe that a lot of good people in the world who don’t, they don’t, if you had to sit down and tell them the damage, they wouldn’t do it again but, again, it’s an ignorance and I think it’s not, it’s the Government hasn’t done enough about it and Parliament’s not going to make changes then us as human beings, the ones that know it’s incorrect that we can be so powerful and impactful because it’s easier to do it together and do… me be the best version of me, be respectful, you do the same, everyone on this call do the same because that… the world then becomes… sets people better off. 

Alexandra Agnew

Thank you so much for your time talking to us today, I really appreciate it and, yeah, I think you’re amazing so….

Leigh Nicol

Thank you so much.  I really enjoyed that. 

Alexandra Agnew

It was great talking to you. 

Leigh Nicol

And you guys.  Thanks for being so warming.

Alexandra Agnew

Thanks.  Bye. 

Leigh Nicol

Bye. 

 

 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.


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