War of words

Rupert Lowe has seen a lot of defeats on the pitch of late, but fared rather better in court. Neil Rose examines the implications of the Times’s defeat for journalists and fans 

London’s libel courts are well known as home to the rich and famous, so it’s no surprise to see the football fraternity make themselves comfortable, too.

Of late, Keith Gillespie accepted “substantial” damages over false claims that he took part in a sexual assault during Leicester’s 2004 trip to La Manga, the Harry Kewell v Gary Lineker case ended in a draw after the jury failed to reach a verdict, and in December Lee Sharpe was successful over another sex-related claim. But the most eye-catching case was Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe’s seriously big win over an article written by Times columnist Martin Samuel.

Samuel wrote that Lowe “shabbily handled” the decision to suspend Dave Jones in the wake of the child-abuse allegations that were later dismissed. It was hardly the worst libel ever and not even the point of the article, yet the jury not only decided that the words were neither justified nor fair comment – both defences to libel – but also awarded a whopping £250,000 in damages. Contentiously, libel remains one of the few areas of civil law where juries retain a role and the jurors may have been influenced by Lowe’s intention to donate any damages to charity.

Laura Tyler, one of Lowe’s solicitors, acknowledged that the damages went “beyond anyone’s expectations”. It was more than is usually awarded for a serious personal injury, let alone most libels, and is likely to be reduced on appeal. Lowe had offered to settle for an apology and £20,000 to charity – the capriciousness of the jury is the risk the Times took in fighting on.

The paper also has to pay Lowe’s £225,000 legal costs, which will be a relief to Saints fans unhappy that the club would otherwise have footed the bill. Lowe said afterwards: “I felt it was a real blot on my character. In football, character is important because a lot of business is done on a handshake – transfers and so on are done on the basis of trust and reputation.”

Reputation is what libel is all about. In general, words can be libellous if they lower a person or company in the estimation of right-thinking members of society. Simple abuse, for example, does not meet the test – which is just as well. Lowe has received plenty of it in recent years and Tyler describes some of the things written about him as “disgusting”. But she says men in positions such as his accept the rough-and-tumble nature of football and that they cannot be too precious. The Times article, however, crossed a line.

According to media lawyer Duncan Lamont, it was a factual error that undermined the Samuel piece and there is something about football that encourages this among journalists. “With sports stories, people seem to write on memory rather than check the facts,” he says. “There is also the attitude that ‘it’s just a footballer – we can print it’,” he adds, but top football people have lawyers, and indeed use libel specialists to vet their increasingly outspoken autobiographies.

Ken Bates is one of many in the game to have used Private Eye’s regular opponents, Carter-Ruck. The firm’s Alasdair Pepper has acted for Alan Shearer and various Chelsea players, and won £150,000 for Kevin Keegan in 2001 over suggestions that he masterminded betting nights on the eve of England matches. However, Pepper contests the notion that with so many acres of controversial writing about football, this must be “ker-ching” time for lawyers. He points out that much of what is written is about events on the pitch and even if potentially libellous is also fair comment.

Plenty of big names in the game have successfully navigated the notoriously difficult seas of libel law, going back to Alan Sugar and Irving Scholar. But it is not just at the glamorous end of the market where there are risks. In late 2004, the editor of Coventry City fanzine Gary Mabbutt’s Knee was threatened with legal action by club chairman Mike McGinnity over a comment posted on its website, even though it had been removed in less than four hours. After an exchange of solicitors’ letters, the threat was dropped, but not before Neville Hadsley suffered a month of stress over the possibility that he could lose his house as a result. It is also said that the board of a Premiership club forced a hostile fanzine to close down through libel pressure, while lawyers threatened action over internet gossip on the Grosvenor House Hotel “roasting” incident a couple of years ago.

There is often no intention to pursue a libel claim through to the end, in part because regular fans could not afford to pay much in damages or costs if they lost. But such people can be forced to back down quickly for fear of losing everything. The McLibel Two, who battled McDonald’s for so long, were very unusual.

The warnings on many message boards prove that editors take the risk seriously – Chelsea websites, for example, have been nervous about any imputations concerning Roman Abramovich’s business interests. “Sure, the world of football is one where often no-nonsense-speaking men and women speak their minds about others and should be prepared to have others speak their minds about them,” says libel lawyer Amber Melville-Brown, whose firm has acted for Gillespie, Sharpe and John Gregory among others. “But where your words damage others, you have to take the consequences, whether those words are spoken, published in newspapers or in chatrooms.”

Referees suing managers for questioning their impartiality is one novel direction this could go in, but next to hit the courts may well be Lowe again, this time over an article by David Mellor. “Football has an honourable history in the libel courts,” says Lamont. And the game shows no sign of leaving it behind.

From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month