Channel 4's Trial and Error vindicated

Channel 4's victory in a libel case will mitigate programme makers fears of police libel threats, writes Roger Pearson.

DJ Freeman has won a significant victory for Channel 4, while the Police Federation has been left with an estimated legal costs bill of up to #2m, in a case where Channel 4 was sued by a detective inspector.

The case, which became such a stop-start affair that it was nicknamed the Groundhog Trial, reached its conclusion in October this year on its third excursion to the High Court and after the discharge of two juries.

The case involved claims against Channel 4 by Detective Inspector Trevor Gladding, a Gloucestershire police officer who claimed he was libelled in an episode in the Trial and Error television series. Gladding's claim was backed by the Police Federation.

The programme probed the murder convictions of Gary Mills and Tony Poole. It featured a recorded telephone conversation between Gladding, the senior officer in the case, and a key witness.

In the tape recording, Gladding repeatedly told the witness not to turn up at the committal hearing and to deny all knowledge of being asked to attend. The programme then claimed that a Police Complaints Authority inquiry into the matter, in which police were exonerated, was a "whitewash".

When the libel claim was brought against Channel 4 and the programme's presenter, David Jessel, they mounted a justification defence on the advice of DJ Freeman partner, Susan Aslan.

Aslan says: "This was an extremely well-researched and well-legalled programme. We listened to the tape of the conversation over and over, and looked at the transcript of the plaintiff's evidence at the murder trial. We could not accept that there was an innocent explanation for what happened and we advised Channel 4 and David Jessel that we considered they had a strong case that was worth fighting."

The initial trial, which took place in July this year, had to be called off after two weeks as a result of comments made in the closing speech of Geoffrey Shaw QC for the plaintiff.

Trial judge Mr Justice Eady's decision to discharge the jury was upheld by the Court of Appeal, which refused leave for the plaintiff to appeal against it.

The jury was discharged and a new trial began in October. But this trial also collapsed after complaints from the defendant about the plaintiff's opening submissions.

A third trial began immediately and ended with Channel 4 and Jessel being cleared of the libel allegations.

The case is one which Aslan says should, among other things, serve as a warning to the police and the Police Federation. She has put an estimated legal costs tag of up to #2m on the bill that the federation, which backs many libel claims by police, will eventually have to foot for this case.

Despite the frustrations involved in the case, she says: "We had confidence in a jury's ability to make a proper assessment of the position. That confidence has been borne out.

"The message is that broadcasters and publishers will not succumb to a 'freeze effect' of repeated threats of libel proceedings by police officers."