FT pays £300,000 libel damages to bring city libel action to an end

Eleventh hour talks this week halted the start of what had all the hall-marks of being one of the biggest money libel actions to hit the High Court.

The action was brought by City stockbrokers Collins Stewart and their Chief Executive Terry Smith against the Financial Times.

Now though the action has been brought to an end with an agreement that the FT will pay £300,000 damages and legal costs and publish an apology.

The first hint of settlement came as the two week hearing in which the stockbrokers were claiming an estimated £37 million in damages was about to start on Monday. The proceedings were dramatically halted before they began.

Richard Spearman QC for Collins Stewart told Mr. Justice Eady who was due to hear the case without a jury that out of court talks were under way which it was hoped would “bear fruit.”

And on Tuesday afternoon they did bear fruit. The judge was told in a brief statement read in court that “substantial” damages were to be paid by the FT and that it is to carry an apology.

The action involved a series of articles published by the FT in the summer of 2003. This week’s moves followed earlier in-court skirmishing which had already watered down the original claim.

In October 2004 part of the claim for £230.5 million for what the stockbroker claimed it lost from it’s market value, was struck out by another judge who said it had no chance of success.

However, the claim was still estimated to be for £37m damages to reflect loss of business and the damage allegedly caused to their reputation and goodwill.

The articles covered the departure of analyst James Middleweek in September 2003 and repeated allegations made by Mr Middleweek about the business methods of the stockbrokers.

In today’s statement advocate Rod Christie-Miller told the judge the claim was by Collins Stewart Ltd and their parent company Collins Stewart Tullett plc.

He said the FT had published four articles reporting on and repeating “a number of defamatory allegations” made against Collins Stewart by James Middleweek in a document filed at the High Court in support of a claim for wrongful dismissal.

Mr Christie-Miller said the first article was published under the headline “Reputations on the line at Collins Stewart” and the second and third were published under the headlines “More than half of Collins Stewart IPOs underperform indices” and “Controversy over Milestone.” He said the fourth article was headed “Middleweek plants a bomb in the City.”

They all appeared in the FT’s Companies and Markets section and also on the FT’s website. However, Mr Christie-Miller said that the FT now expressed its “regret at the way in which it reported Mr Middleweek’s allegations against Collins Stewart.”

“The Financial Times is happy to clarity that it did not ever endorse Mr Middleweek’s allegations and apologises for any impression to the contrary that may unintentionally have been given,” he said.

Rupert Grey, advocate for the FT said they accepted all that Mr Christie-Miller had said.

Afterwards the parties issued a joint statement in which they said the FT had agreed to publish an apology which would make it clear that it did not endorse James Middleweek’s allegations.

FT Editor, Lionel Barber said after the settlement : “After two and a half years of litigation, this agreement enables both sides to put this matter behind us and move on.”

Chief Executive for Collins Stewart Tullett said : “I an Collins Stewart Tullett wish the editorial team at the Financial Times well and the matter is now closed as far as we are concerned.”

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