A false confession

The Sun came a bit of a cropper in the quiet home news days between Christmas and New Year 2004.

Disgraced
former Premiership star Stan Collymore had complained to the Press
Complaints Commission that The Sun had inaccurately accused him of
lying, in relation to a mock ‘confession’ he had signed. He also
accused the paper of subterfuge in obtaining his signature. It lost.

Collymore
was well known to Sun readers for his off-the-ball antics which
included attacking his ex girlfriend Ulrika Jonsson and ‘dogging’
(group sex in car parks). In libel, a reputation like that might make
him fair game but the PCC took a cool view of The Sun’s behaviour and
concluded there were indefensible breaches of clause 1 (accuracy) and
clause 10 (clandestine devices and subterfuge).

The claim shows
the strengths, and a weakness, of the PCC. The article complained of
was published on 3 November 2004 headlined ‘I Lied’ (above) and arose
because on 1 November Mr Collymore had alleged that he had been beaten
up the previous evening in Dublin by several English rugby players.
Perhaps, in a spirit of mischievous fun, The Sun , two days later,
published on page 1 ‘I Lied: Stan Collymore’s sensational signed
confession to The Sun ‘. This was inaccurate because the claim that he
had made a signed confession (including lying about the alleged attack)
was false – he had been duped into signing a piece of paper that he
thought was an autograph for someone buying his new book but that was a
mock confession.

On an inside page The Sun admitted that the
confession had been obtained as a scam but this could have been missed
by readers, and the subterfuge in obtaining the signature was explained
on the basis that the nature of the scam had been made clear on pages 4
and 5.

To the PCC The Sun’s front page was “entirely misleading”.
The Sun had “not taken sufficient care to highlight the way in which
the confession had been obtained.” The subterfuge needed a reasonable
public interest defence which did not arise here. So an expeditious,
not costly, and clear decision from the regulator: A PCC strength.

But
the item complained of was on page 1, and The Sun had the adjudication
published on page 32 (online the last story on page 2 of 2). The
tsunami tragedy in Asia had not taken up all of the paper’s 31
preceding pages.

Newspapers have long known that inventing
interviews (damages for false attribution of authorship, a copyright
infringement for Dorothy Squires in 1972, regulator fury for the faking
of an interview with the widow of Colonel H Jones, the Falklands hero)
was high risk, but a bit of fun, as with Collymore, has a history of
being dangerous too.

Jokes seldom sound funny in court.

The
Evening Standard learnt this lesson 1998 when former Cabinet Minister
Alan Clark sued the newspaper for false attribution and passing off
because of the weekly spoof column, ‘Alan Clark’s Diaries’.

The
real author got a name check at the bottom while Alan Clark’s name and
photograph appeared at the top of the column. It was sometimes
hilarious, exaggerated fantasy but the judge failed to see the joke and
may have thought that some readers (how moronic would they have to be?)
would have been misled. A costly setback for the paper but it was able
to continue the diaries by making it even more blatantly obvious they
had nothing to do with the media-savvy politician.

When The News
of the World heard of a computer sex game involving lookalikes of
Neighbours’ stars, the picture desk mocked up a photograph that
appeared to show the two respectable soap actors naked and enjoying
perverse sex. The small text of the article did reveal that the actors’
faces had been superimposed on pornographic photographs without their
consent. A libel claim was brought and on appeal in 1995 The News of
the World got away with it – just – on ‘antidote and bane’ defence
(readers would have appreciated that the stars were innocent) but it
was a close run thing.

Sadly perhaps for amused readers the legal lesson is to leave the japes, jokes and scams to comedians rather than newspapers.

Duncan Lamont is a Partner in the Media Group of City Solicitors Charles Russell

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