A former police chief’s libel action against the Daily Mirror over allegations that he was involved in the illegal interception of a reporter’s phone records will proceed to a full trial, the High Court has ruled.
Sean Price, ex-chief constable of Cleveland Police, claims three articles published in December 2016 falsely alleged that, while in office, he was “party to” the interception of journalist Jeremy Armstrong’s phone records.
Mirror Group Newspapers, the publisher of the Daily Mirror, argues that the articles do not bear that meaning, and also that Price had no prospect of establishing that the articles caused serious harm to his reputation “given his general bad reputation for serious dishonesty and bullying”.
But, giving judgement in London yesterday, Mr Justice Warby dismissed the Mirror’s application to block the claim.
He ruled that the “natural and ordinary meaning” of the articles was that Price was “party to the illegal accessing of the mobile telephone records of a Daily Mirror journalist“.
The judge added: “The claim must proceed towards trial.”
Price was sacked as chief constable for gross misconduct in October 2012 after he was found to have asked a junior member of staff to lie about his role in the hiring of the daughter of a former police authority chairman.
He had previously been arrested on suspicion of criminal misconduct following an investigation into corruption within Cleveland Police, but no charges were ever brought against him.
During a December 2016 Investigatory Powers Tribunal hearing into allegations that Cleveland Police had unlawfully intercepted the phone data of former officers Steve Matthews and Mark Dias, it emerged that the force had also obtained authorisation to intercept Armstrong’s phone data.
The Mirror said this revelation was “the trigger” for the three articles, but it had made clear that Price “was not alleged to have been involved in this interception”.
However, Price complained that the articles – including an online piece with the headline “Cheating cop who accessed Mirror phone records claims his phone was also monitored” – were defamatory.
Mr Justice Warby found that particular headline “expressly presents the claimant as not only a ‘cheating cop’ but one ‘who accessed Mirror phone records'”.
The judge added: “It is not far short of absurd to argue that an article which describes an individual as the cop who ‘accessed Mirror phone records’ and was ‘at the centre’ of a scandal involving such unlawful access does not implicate him in the access.”
He also rejected the argument that the “several strands of narrative” across the articles, which involved “sex, money, corruption, lies, bullying and dismissal”, were presented as “separate and unconnected matters”.
Mr Justice Warby said: “The strands were woven together in such a way as to present the reader with this picture: the access to journalistic phone records which the force had admitted, and which was unlawful, was prompted by the Mirror’s journalistic investigation of the claimant, and he – as the boss, and the person with most to fear – was a participant.”