By Brian Cathcart
On 10 March lawyers acting for the editor of the Daily Mail and two of his colleagues wrote to the crowdfunded journalism site Byline Media demanding that three articles be taken down from the site that very day because they were ‘highly defamatory, seriously harmful, untrue and, as such, unlawful’.
The letter served notice that a ‘substantive letter of claim’ would follow – the next step in legal proceedings for libel.
The articles were not removed and three days later an eight-page letter of claim duly arrived, demanding the publication, within 48 hours, of a long list of corrections and a full, agreed apology, plus an undertaking never to re-publish the allegations. It was, the letter declared, ‘extremely important to our clients’ that this was done ‘immediately’.
All desperately urgent, you might infer. And yet the urgency has evaporated. Byline stood up to the threats, refusing to retract, and now, almost four weeks later, the three Daily Mail executives and their solicitor are silent.
With every day that passes, in fact, this episode looks less like a case of disputed journalistic allegations headed for the High Court and more like a case of attempted corporate bullying.
The Mail – which sees threats to journalistic freedom around every corner, which preens itself as the most vigilant champion of that freedom, and which misses no opportunity to denounce our supposedly ‘draconian’ libel laws – has used precisely those laws in an attempt to silence a very small publisher of investigative journalism. And when Byline defied its threat, like a lot of bullies it failed to follow through.
It is hard not to recall the tactics of the late press proprietor and pension fund thief Robert Maxwell, who employed a stable of solicitors to fire off threats of legal action to any publication or journalist with the effrontery to ask questions about his crooked activities. For Maxwell, it worked for years.
Perhaps most jarring in all this are the oily professions of regret contained in the second Mail letter – pure Uriah Heep:
Our clients have instructed us to write this formal Letter of Claim with the utmost reluctance because they believe passionately in freedom of expression and fully respect your rights as journalists to examine these issues. However…’
‘ . . . our clients are passionately committed to press freedom and the principles underpinning the importance of preserving an unfettered and independent news media and we emphasise again that they fully respect your right to write about these matters. Notwithstanding this…’
This came from the Mail’s solicitor, Keith Mathieson, acting for Paul Dacre, the paper’s editor, Peter Wright, the ‘emeritus editor’, and Liz Hartley, the paper’s head of legal affairs.
You can read Byline’s reply to the Mail executives here. It certainly makes their grievances look half-baked. And you can access the three articles through the same link. A fourth article, ‘The story Paul Dacre tried to suppress’, can be read here.
The articles describe in detail the past relationship between the Mail and a private investigator, Steve Whittamore. He specialised in securing personal data for newspapers, sometimes illegally. Though the Mail continued to employ him after he had been convicted of lawbreaking, and though Whittamore himself states that the paper must have known it was asking for information that could not be acquired legally, the paper insists (as it insisted to the Leveson Inquiry) that it did nothing wrong.
Dacre, Hartley and Wright claim in the letter to be determined to ‘set the record straight’, but they no longer seem confident about how to go about it. So here is some advice. Let them put their evidence before a judge at Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry. That at least might be consistent with their supposed commitment to press freedom.