Covering the wall of Daniel Taylor’s office is a collection of metaphorical scalps. Among the News International company solicitor’s valedictory gallery are front pages from The Sun – which he looks after together with News of the World – and the Evening Standard celebrating libel victories over disgraced footballer Bruce Grobbelaar and former EastEnders actress Gillian Taylforth.
If you are too highbrow to remember the Taylforth case, here’s a clue: it involved a motorway hard shoulder, a bogus stomach ache and a video of Ian Beale’s mum eating a sausage in a rather suggestive way.
The Grobbelaar case made headline news across the media earlier this year when the Court of Appeal overturned a jury decision that had awarded him £85,000 in libel damages after The Sun accused him of taking corrupt payments aimed at match fixing, ruling that the decision reached was “perverse”.
It was the first time in legal history that the conclusion of the 12 good men and true had been overturned by the Court of Appeal and as such came as a surprise to everyone, including Taylor. But then the initial libel action from “Brucie”, as Taylor refers to Grobbelaar, also came as a surprise.
“There was surprise, as they’ve never overturned a jury verdict in the history of English law,” recalls Taylor. “They had to be quite brave, the judges in the Court of Appeal. In the judgment they said something like, ‘The easy course of action would have been for us to say that the jury has come to its decision and we are going to let it stand.’ But they were genuinely concerned that an injustice was going to be allowed.”
The only tinge of sadness for Taylor in the celebrations following the decision was that George Carman QC, who had originally cross-examined Grobbelaar, died a fortnight beforehand, so he never knew.
The Sun, never one to hide its light under a bushel, devoted a gloating 12 pages to its victory and Grobbelaar immediately threatened to sue for libel again, pointing out that he had never been convicted of the charges: after two trials, one hung jury and another that cleared him of one charge of corruption but failed to agree on another, the case was dropped.
Given that Grobbelaar already has a ruinous legal costs bill hanging over him, nothing to date has come of his threat, although Taylor is currently awaiting a decision on Grobbelaar’s application for provisional permission to appeal to the House of Lords. He expects a decision within a couple of weeks, and if the Lords say yes then the appeal should be heard at the beginning of next year.
Unsurprisingly, after finally coming out on top after a seven-year battle, Taylor is not keen on the idea of the case rumbling on for a few more months. He has been involved since the very beginning because he was the lawyer who gave legal clearance to the original article. So was that toned down at all?
Taylor neatly sidesteps the question by pointing out that The Sun had caught Grobbelaar on video taking cash, and so there were not too many worries about running the story. “The admissions on the tape were so devastating that no one expected him to sue,” says Taylor. “Carman said when we instructed him that it would never go to court.”
One line of defence in the original Grobbelaar trial that The Sun tried and failed on was that of qualified privilege – arguing that the article was run in the public interest. Unfortunately for Taylor, the judge Charles Green did not believe that corruption in sport was one of those matters where qualified privilege could be sought. The Court of Appeal judgment disagreed, and given the current hoo-ha over cricketers, I know who I side with.
Qualified privilege has also failed to help sister paper The Times in the recent Loutchansky case, in which a Russian businessman sued for a series of articles linking him to money laundering. Taylor was not involved in the case as he does not look after The Times, but he is clearly irritated at the verdict. One of the points made by the judge was that newspapers cannot rely on the defence of public interest (as laid out in the case brought against The Sunday Times by former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds) if there have not been sufficient attempts made to contact the subject of the story prior to publication. In this instance, the reporter was found not to have made the requisite attempts to contact Loutchansky for his side of the story, despite knowing the names of his English and US lawyers.
But judges are not reporters and Taylor argues that newspaper deadlines often do not allow for the niceties that judges demand in an ideal world. As a journalist, I know the problems of the unreturned call during a deadline only too well, but I have to say that I might try a bit harder if I was about to accuse a prominent Russian businessman of money laundering.
While on the subject of dodgy dealings, what about Ronnie Biggs? Taylor played a small part in bringing the Great Train Robber back from Brazil to “face justice”, as The Sun phrased it.
The only thing that Taylor will disclose, is that the problems surrounding that particular circus were not so much legal as journalistic. “One of the executives on The Sun, who knew nothing about it, was informed by a colleague on the Daily Mail that we were going to run it. The same day a team of reporters was dispatched to Brazil,” Taylor laughs.
When Taylor talks about the scoops his charges run, his face lights up. Just as some lawyers get off on deal values that read like international telephone numbers, Taylor obviously runs off the adrenaline that hangs over a national newspaper office.
But, says Marcus Partington, who is the in-house lawyer for the Sunday People and so has had plenty of dealings with him, while Taylor may get enthused, he does not get emotional about his job and so stays out of fighting reporters’ battles.
Understandably, Taylor says he is much more concerned about contempt of court actions than libel claims. With the former the stakes are considerably raised, and if Taylor blows it then an editor could go to prison.
Taylor recalls that this nearly happened in the Brindell Brothers case, which was the same case that brought The Sun a record £100,000 fine. Following a shooting in the East End of London, The Sun printed a photograph of the suspect two days before an identity parade, after clearance from a night lawyer who remains nameless but is now living in the US. Not good. The Sun held up its hands and fell on the judge’s mercy, pleading a mistake. The editor at the time Kelvin McKenzie was told that if the publication had been deliberate the fine would have been seven figures and McKenzie would have spent a while behind bars. Quite how McKenzie would have reacted to that sends a shiver up the spine – he is hardly known for his calm and philosophical approach to life.
Now, of course, the Sunday Mirror is facing its own contempt proceedings about an article printed during jury deliberations in the Leeds footballers assault case. When we spoke, proceedings were active in the contempt case so Taylor was careful about what he said, apart from to say that he presumed the Mirror Group would be running its defence along the lines that the judge in the case had ruled out racism as a relevant issue, and therefore the article was not in contempt. As I am not willing to go to prison for the sake of this piece, I cannot tell you what that article contained so you will just have to ask around. But lawyers in the unofficial Media Club, where views and advice are exchanged on a regular basis, seem to be baffled by the case.
Interestingly, Taylor has not yet received any claims against breach of privacy stemming from the Human Rights Act (HRA). While The Mirror is facing a claim from Naomi Campbell following shots of her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas achieved an injunction under the act against Hello! magazine, The Sun and the News of the World have yet to suffer. Taylor admits that this is surprising given that judges seem prepared to push the new legislation.
While Taylor is undoubtedly overlooking a pool of very talented reporters (now come on, you all read that copy of The Sun left on the train), it will not be that long before he is brushing up his knowledge of the HRA and preparing to fight another battle. No doubt he will relish that one, too.