£250,000 payout: Thomson calls for libel laws review

By Dominic Ponsford

A football club chairman accused of acting “shabbily” by Martin
Samuel, a sports columnist for The Times, has been awarded a larger
payout than he would have got if he had been rendered quadriplegic.

Times editor Robert Thomson described the £250,000 jury award as
“absolutely extraordinary” – a view backed up by leading media lawyers.

And the case could set a dangerous precedent for all media commentators.

The
Times was this week considering whether to appeal against the size of
the award and it may also appeal against the decision itself.

Southampton
Football Club chairman Rupert Lowe sued over a short comment piece that
appeared in August 2004. In it, Samuel claimed that Lowe had “shabbily
handled” the situation when club manager Dave Jones was suspended in
the wake of child abuse allegations. Jones was later cleared of all
charges.

In the piece – headlined “Men who would be kings are a
ghastly alternative” – Samuel wrote: “How would Lowe approach the issue
of an England player accused of breaking the law, when he so shabbily
handled the case of David Jones, his manager.”

Lowe’s lawyers
argued that the article was factually incorrect because the Managers’
Arbitration Panel had found Southampton acted reasonably in the Jones
case.

The jury’s decision to award Lowe £250,000 in damages
exceeds the maximum libel payout for recent years, which had been set
at £200,000.

This was the sum paid to Newcastle nurses
Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed, who were falsely accused of being
serial paedophiles.

Commenting on the payout, media lawyer Mark
Stephens said: “If someone were rendered paraplegic in a car accident
they would expect to get less than £250,000. Lowe is still in the same
job and does not appear to have suffered any long-term hurt from this
article.

“I would expect the court of appeal to lower this award
or for Lowe’s lawyers to reach a settlement with The Times before it
gets that far.”

Times in-house lawyer Jill Phillips said: “If the
penalty for having got a comment wrong is this enormous, it has quite
severe implications for freedom of expression. It’s not always going to
be practical for people to set out in detail in their articles the
factual basis for comments.”

The Times used the defence of fair comment, that the columnist was expressing an honestly held opinion based on provable facts.

Thomson
described the £250,000 payout as “an absolutely extraordinary and
disproportionate amount for the use of one mild adjective in a single
piece of commentary in the sports pages”. He added: “This is reflected
by the fact that the judge has given The Times leave to appeal on
damages and has frozen all but £50,000 of the amount.

“The case
sets an unwelcome precedent for all columnists, who are supposed to
have strong views on their chosen subjects. A comprehensive review of
the country’s libel laws is urgently needed.”

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