Thursday, 23 July 2009

Desmond's Defeat

There is much jollity this evening at the news that Express owner, publisher of softcore magazines and sometime New Labour donor Richard Desmond has failed in his libel action against author Tom Bower. Bower had made various claims that Desmond objected to in a book about the jailed former Telegraph owner Conrad Black - that Desmond had been forced to apologise to Black over some matter, for example. The alleged defamation, from what I can gather, lay in the notion that a newspaper proprietor - especially one with Desmond's reputation for ruthlessness - could be a wimp. He also claimed (under oath) that a press baron would never use his newspaper to settle scores with a business rival. "It's quite difficult to think of a more defamatory allegation to make against the proprietor of a newspaper" his counsel told the jury - hilariously, it might be thought. Private Eye has the full story - with more to follow in a fortnight's time.

In some circles, the result of the case is also being chalked up as a defeat for journos' least favourite judge. Roy Greenslade implies that Eady showed undue partiality towards Desmond, preventing some evidence of his character faults from going before the jury. Some of Eady's rulings were overturned by the Court of Appeal - which is unusual. This must be a good omen for Simon Singh. Greenslade - who gave evidence on Bowers' behalf - mentions some of the things that weren't mentioned in court:

For example, the jury could not hear about Desmond's extraordinary behaviour towards Telegraph Media Group executives in April 2004, when he launched into a Nazi tirade.

At a meeting to discuss the companies joint ownership of a print works, he called TMG's then chief executive, Jeremy Deedes, a "miserable little piece of shit" and said Germans were "all Nazis". But Deedes was prohibited from telling of that incident in court.

Similarly, jurors were prevented from hearing the testimony of the former Daily Express night editor, Ted Young, who claimed he was punched by Desmond during an altercation about a story Desmond said should have been published.

That incident, in September 2004, led to Young being paid a six-figure sum in August 2005 on the eve of an industrial tribunal hearing.

Greenslade also chooses to highlight the information (also ruled inadmissable) that Desmond is held in "contempt" by other proprietors and editors - such as the Mails' Paul Dacre who thought it "a very sad day" for the newspaper industry when he "was allowed to buy "a once great newspaper". I'd have thought being criticised by Paul Dacre was a badge of honour. In his speech to the Society of Editors last year Dacre waxed lyrical about the greatness of the Express in the days when his father worked for it, when its pages were filled with book reviews "with barely a nod to literary criticism" and readers' letters which captured "the tears, the tribulations, the laughter, the quirks and the wisdom of everyday family life" , but which turned out to have been ghost-written by the hacks.

The report in the Express is just hilarious.

RICHARD Desmond, Chairman of Northern and Shell, which owns the Daily Express and Sunday Express newspapers, tonight expressed satisfaction at the end of his three week High Court battle against the journalist Tom Bower.

Satisfaction? He lost. Even the defence counsel thought he might win on a technicality, inviting the jury to award Desmond symbolic damages of no more than the 40p cost of the newspaper

Mr. Desmond said: “I sued Mr Bower for defamation because he made inaccurate and damaging allegations about me, yet he refused to apologise and publish a correction. Bower made a series of errors about events and timings and even got the name of one of my newspapers wrong.

That's not what the jury concluded.

"His biggest mistake was in thinking I would not go to court to uphold my reputation and the resulting action has cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds to defend a few ill-thought-out remarks that were not even essential to his book.”

Bower will be awarded his costs.

Mr. Desmond concluded: “It was worth it to stand up in court and set the record straight.”

And have the full, devastating accounts of his behaviour splashed all over tomorrow's papers. I'm sure he thinks it was worth it.

English libel law has many faults, but one of its better aspects is the frequent (though not inevitable) involvement of a jury. Defamation is ridiculously easy to establish in strict legal terms, but where ordinary jurors are involved there's at least a strong possibility that common sense will prevail.