Privacy puzzler after Cole nets libel win

England football star Ashley Cole's "gay orgy" libel victory over News International this week set a new precedent for jigsaw identification involving the internet.

The settlement was agreed on the eve of Cole taking part in England's 1-0 win over Ecuador, which took them into Saturday's World Cup quarter-final.

Cole has won apologies and damages, believed to total more than £100,000, from The Sun and the News of the World over stories they carried about un-named Premiership footballers involved in "perverted" orgies involving a mobile phone.

Although the stories did not name Cole, his lawyers were prepared to argue in court that they could provide readers who decided they referred to the England star after conducting their own research on the internet.

Cole lawyer Graham Shear, from TSS Law, said: "I think the warning to journalists from this is that the internet is a powerful tool which means that you can't be suggestive unless absolutely certain of your facts.

"In this case they weren't sure of their facts and their facts were wrong — what started out to be something suggestive turned into an unexploded bomb, and it's blown up in their faces."

The News of the World reported on 12 February that there had been a "homosexual orgy" involving two Premiership footballers and a "pal well known in the music industry".

On 19 February, the NoW published details of more "perverted" orgies along with a heavily obscured photo of "the DJ" and "player B".

That photo proved to be the newspaper's downfall in this case, because, despite being pixillated and changed, a number of websites, including Pinknews.co.uk, found the original and named the men concerned as Cole and the DJ Masterstepz.

Masterstepz, real name Ian Thompson, also this week won an apology and "substantial damages" from News Group Newspapers.

He was represented by David Price Solicitors.

The Sun was drawn into the libel action over a 12 February story headed "Who bum it?", which reported that two Premiership footballers and a music industry figure were involved in a "gay romp" involving a mobile phone as a "sex toy".

A further Sun story on 16 February pictured Cole with his fiancée Cheryl Tweedy wearing her new engagement ring under the innuendo-laden headline "Ashley's got a good taste in rings".

Shear said that he had done his best to protect Cole from distraction during the World Cup campaign and that most of the settlement was agreed several weeks ago.

Shear said that a website his law firm set up — asking people to come forward who used the internet to make the connection between Cole and The Sun/NoW articles — had played a crucial role in gaining this week's settlement.

Legal expert Katrin Evans from 1 Brick Court said the "jigsaw identification" was a novel aspect of the case and would have been the first such libel action to be heard in court. She warned journalists: "If you are not named in a newspaper you can nonetheless sue over a defamatory article if you can call people in court who identified it to be you."

Caroline Kean from Wiggin said: "Neither of the apologies in The Sun and News of the World admit that they did identify either of these people — all they admitted is that some readers understood it to be them.

"I suspect this is a hard-headed purely pragmatic apology by newspapers knowing legal expenses are high."

Pinknews.co.uk was warned back in March by News Group that it could seek to recover costs under the Civil Liability Contribution Act because of the role the website played in bringing about the Cole action.

News editor Marc Shoffman said: "We are yet to hear whether News Group will be issuing third-party proceedings against us, but it seems unlikely as they have voluntarily admitted they were liable in this issue."

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