The Daily Mail’s publisher has apologised and made a “substantial” charity donation on behalf of a construction tycoon who it wrongly claimed had bought affordable homes at a discount in a “greedy” and “unethical” way.
Steve Morgan CBE, founder and chairman of major housebuilding firm Redrow, settled his libel case against Associated Newspapers this week, 18 months after the article was first published.
It appeared on page 12 of the Daily Mail and on Mail Online on 24 August 2017. The print headline read: “Building tycoons using staff discounts to snap up homes meant for families,” with the subheadline: “Fat cat bought six houses… and rents four back to staff.”
The story claimed Morgan had bought six houses, which had been built by his company as affordable homes for those who are less well-off, for £860,000 in total – well below their combined market value of £2.1m.
It also claimed Morgan was charging at least £640 a month in rent for each home and pointed readers to a comment piece in the same edition headlined: “Homes for fat cats,” which criticised “multi-millionaire developers” for “taking advantage of substantial discounts to snap up affordable homes meant for young families and first-time buyers”.
Matt Himsworth, representing Morgan, told the High Court on Tuesday: “These allegations are false. In fact, the price paid by Mr Morgan for the six properties was the highest offer that was made.
“The properties were not on the market for £350,000 each as claimed, or anything like that sum, and he did not purchase them at a substantial discount to their market value.
“Further, the properties remain at all times subject to affordable housing obligations and are all being rented out to local residents in accordance with affordable housing criteria, some of them for substantially less than £640 per month.”
Himsworth told the court Morgan had complained to the Mail, which had refused to offer a correction or apology to his satisfaction, resulting in him bringing libel proceedings.
At a preliminary hearing on 28 June last year, a High Court judge ruled the article could cause Morgan serious reputational harm under the Defamation Act 2013 “in the sense that it was likely to provoke outrage in ordinary reasonable readers”, Himsworth said.
The Mail originally pleaded a defence of honest opinion, but the case has now been settled with the publisher apologising “for the distress and damage to his reputation” and making a donation to charity in lieu of damages.
In an apology published online and in print on Tuesday, the Mail said it had been “wrong to allege that Mr Morgan had exploited his position to line his pockets in a greedy, unethical and morally unacceptable way.
“He did not buy the houses at a discount to their market value, and they are being rented out to local residents in accordance with affordable housing criteria.”
Himsworth said that for Morgan, who was awarded a CBE in 2016 for philanthropic services, the allegations had “struck at the heart of his personal integrity and dignity”.
“The article flew in the face of his philanthropic purpose in life, caused him immense anger and distress,” he said.
“The suggestion that he would greedily chisel financial advantages for himself at the expense of low-income families was deeply insulting to him.”
In a statement after Tuesday’s court hearing, Morgan said: “This is a significant victory against the Daily Mail and one which demonstrates that the publication cannot unjustly print defamatory and untrue stories without basis or reason.
“The suggestion that I would ‘greedily’ take self-advantage at the expense of low-income families is hugely insulting and has caused me a great deal of anger and distress. These allegations fly in the face of all that I stand for.
“It is a shame that it has taken 18 months for justice to be served and for the Daily Mail to recognise its wrongdoing, however, I am pleased the record has now been set straight and that we may now draw a line under this issue.
“I am particularly pleased that the substantial damages received from the Mail will be put to good use by providing specially adapted minibuses which will improve the lives of the children at these wonderful special needs schools.”