15 December 2015

Tim Yeo and the perils of libel litigation


Amber Melville-Brown
Partner | UK

Tim Yeo may not be looking for a new role in the next round of I'm a Celebrity… But he may well have screamed 'Get me out of here' on realising that he had made a spectacular mistake in pursuing libel litigation. He had taken offence at articles in The Sunday Times accusing him of being prepared to act as a paid Parliamentary advocate in breach of the House of Commons Code of Conduct.  Perhaps he saw the paper as the 'feral beast' that Tony Blair once labelled the press, in need of having its nose rubbing in the 'mess' of its reporting, to teach it a lesson. But it is the reporting that has come out smelling more of roses than Mr Yeo's now malodorous reputation. The point of libel litigation is to gain public vindication for a reputational wrong; done badly, the verdict may be public vilification instead. Part of Mr Yeo's evidence was graphically described by Mr Justice Warby: 'when a fish wriggles on a hook, it goes deeper into the mouth and guarantees that the fish will not escape. So with Mr Yeo's evidence on this issue. His twists and turns in the attempts to escape the obvious served only to emphasise the problem…' Warby J ultimately found the claimant's evidence to be 'unworthy of belief', 'dishonest' and 'close to absurd'; sharp judicial barbs impossible now from which to wriggle free. So, should those of us who operate on the claimant side of the divide pay heed to Mr Yeo's humiliation and take irresponsible reporting on the chin, simply whimpering 'don't mess with the press'? No. But claimants should think twice and take advice before embarking on the choppy seas of libel litigation, and ensure the evidence relied upon is water tight. Former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken famously challenged The Guardian and Granada television to a duel with his 'simple sword of truth' and 'trusty shield of fair play'. But it was their allegedly 'bent and twisted journalism' which came out intact, while his reputation was cut to ribbons by his own lies. Echoing Sir Walter Scott's 'oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive', Aitken's 'web of deceit' was referred to by Mr Justice Scott Baker when sentencing him for perjury and perverting the course of justice. And Jeffrey Archer's false alibi and faked diary helped to ease him to improper libel victory against the Daily Star — and then to ease him into a prison cell. The judge — impressed with the fragrancy of Archer's wife Mary – asked the jury when considering the truth of the allegation of sex with a prostitute, 'Is he in need of cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex in a seedy hotel?' On the false evidence, they found not; once he was ensconced at Her Majesty's pleasure, the answer should presumably have been, err, apparently so. Libel litigation is not a toy to be swung to 'spin' a damaged reputation; a claim in defamation is a serious solution for an honest claimant to remedy the most valuable asset that is his unblemished name, but a dishonest claim may well multiply the damage to his reputation many times over. Any litigant must beware being snared in the tangled web of deceit; if he doesn't, the self-recriminatory words that run through his head as he licks his reputational wounds or faces perjury charges may not be as eloquent as Sir Walter Scott's, or as pompous as the petard that hoist Archer, but the prosaic pronouncement of our beloved Oliver Hardy: 'well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into'. First published in The Times' The Brief legal news email on 11 December 2015.

Amber Melville-Brown Partner | London

Category: Blog