Goalkeeper Grobbelaar's fall to earth

The sun cost Icarus his life – he flew too close, and crashed into the Aegean when his wax wings melted. Bruce Grobbelaar’s encounter with The Sun was only slightly less disastrous, costing him his reputation and £84,999 in libel damages, writes Antony Whitaker.

The remaining £1 of his award, which the House of Lords allowed him to keep, formed their derisory condemnation of the level to which he had sunk.

He had sued The Sun for claiming that, as a top-class goalkeeper, he had taken bribes to fix, and had fixed, football matches. After a 16-day trial, when the tangles of a self-imposed web of deceit came close to strangling him, the jury decided that The Sun’s secretly taped and videoed evidence, the authenticity of which was not challenged, did not sustain a defence of truth. The appeals to the Court of Appeal and House of Lords were concerned to plumb the enigmatic depths of how, despite that evidence, the jury came to award him £85,000.

The Sun persuaded the Court of Appeal that this verdict was perverse; but Grobbelaar disagreed and went to the Lords. By a majority, they decided the jury, though overgenerous, had not been perverse.

Lord Bingham was prepared to infer the jury had accepted that the article meant that Grobbelaar had actually fixed matches, and that The Sun had failed to prove this; and he also believed they had found Grobbelaar had made a corrupt agreement to that effect which, regardless of whether he carried it out, was equally reprehensible. But Bingham concluded that the jury’s generosity was probably generated by The Sun’s match-fixing headlines, which they never withdrew, their "ambushing" him with the allegations, and their attempt to involve his children.

In this sense, though mistaken in their generosity, the jury had not acted perversely, a view shared by Lords Hobhouse, Millett and Scott. Only Lord Steyn took the opposite view. But they were unanimous as to the impact of Grobbelaar’s corruption, which Bingham condemned out of hand: "He had in fact acted in a way whichÉ could, if not exposed and stamped on, undermine the integrity of a game which earns the loyalty and support of millionsÉ it would be an affront to justiceÉ to award substantial damages to a man shown to have acted in such flagrant breach of his legal and moral obligations."

The case rehabilitated the jury from the Court of Appeal’s censure, and The Sun from the jury’s apparent censure. That said, it creates no new law, and serves only to illustrate once again what journalists and libel lawyers know only too well-there’s no telling where you may end up with an independent-minded jury.


Antony Whitaker is a legal consultant at Theodore Goddard

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