David & Goliath – Businessman’s libel victory over Mail on Sunday after 25-year bid to clear his name

Michael Ward
  • MAIL ON SUNDAY “stole files” and “paid witnesses” relating to trial of ex-nightclub tycoon Michael Ward 
  • FIGHT TO CLEAR his name fell on deaf ears for years
  • HE PLANNED TO EXPOSE Mail on Sunday’s alleged “conspiracy” in Leveson 2
  • BUT WON LIBEL case against the paper after it rubbished his claims

By Chris Allen & Graham Johnson

YESTERDAY, Byline Investigates revealed how Michael Ward won big libel damages off the Mail on Sunday after the paper rubbished his fight for justice.

Today, we explain the background to his extraordinary case.

His story begins in 1987 when he founded European Leisure Ltd to capitalise on the nightclub boom.

The firm – with Mr Ward as CEO – ran over 120 clubs across the UK and Europe, including Camden Palace and legendary Leicester Square venue The Hippodrome.

Ward (R) purchasing The Hippodrome from Peter Stringfellow (L) in 1989.

In 1991, after the Mail on Sunday published a series of articles alleging his involvement in financial misconduct, Mr Ward sued publishers Associated News (ANL) for libel.

He says the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) then began an inquiry into share dealings after reading the articles, followed by an Serious Fraud Office (SFO) probe.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge-educated former millionaire claims the Mail on Sunday’s Finance Editor Lawrence Lever got into his house in Chester Square, Belgravia, and removed files crucial to his defence. 

Two Mail on Sunday articles written by former Mail on Sunday journalists Lawrence Lever – the first one in Clive Wolman’s finance column

Ex-merchant banker Mr Ward was subsequently convicted in September 1995 on two counts – causing the falsification of a document and making a false or misleading document – and was jailed for 12 months.

In 1997 he got another two years’ prison after the Attorney General appealed his ‘unduly lenient’ community service order for an earlier, March 1995, SFO conviction relating to an illegal share support scheme. 

Later, efforts to clear his name through the Court of Appeal and CCRC fell on deaf ears. 

Mr Ward hoped to use the 2012 Leveson Inquiry to expose what he claimed in court documents is “the most serious conspiracy to pervert the course of justice ever to have been perpetrated by a newspaper in this country’s history”.

But he was told that the complexity of his case meant it was better suited to Leveson 2 – which was then cancelled in 2018 without Mr Ward’s evidence being considered. 

Mr Ward applied to the High Court in February 2019 for a Judicial Review of former Digital, Culture, Media & Sport minister Matt Hancock’s decision to shelve Leveson 2.

It was in this case that he laid bare his catalogue of devastating claims against the Mail on Sunday.

As well as secretly paying witnesses and stealing his files, he accused the paper of feeding false allegations into third party witness statements for secret cash payments, leaking info about the SFO probe to witnesses, and making up devastating allegations in a signed witness statement for the SFO which the paper knew were untrue.

Queen’s Bench Division Judge Mrs Justice May refused the Judicial Review, but tellingly noted in her judgement: “Mr Ward appears to have pursued every avenue over the years in trying to have his complaints examined and dealt with to no avail.”

Byline reported on Mr Ward’s Judicial Review bid in March 2019, to which the Mail on Sunday responded: “Mr Ward’s claims were raised and rejected at the trial, some 24 years ago, where he was convicted of financial crimes. 

“They have subsequently been examined and rejected again at the Court of Appeal and by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. There is no merit in Mr Ward’s allegations.”

Mr Ward sued for libel in October 2019, representing himself in the High Court action against a raft of Mail on Sunday-hired barristers.

He argued that in fact none of his claims against the paper were raised – let alone rejected – at his first trial.

At his second trial, he argued that claims touching on the newspaper’s theft and destruction of documents, its secret payments of cash to prosecution witnesses, its encouragement of perjuryand its lying to investigators, were “explicitly shown to have been truthful, the opposite of ‘rejected’, in the course of that trial.”

Mr Ward pointed out that although the Court of Appeal dismissed his bid to clear his name in 1997, it found his claims about the Mail on Sunday offering a witness a ‘conviction bonus’ “quite repugnant to our system of criminal justice.”

And in a 2005 review of his case, he argued the CCRC had described the Mail on Sunday’s behaviour as “thoroughly unsavoury” and “deplorable”.

The CCRC noted: “Mr Wolman was also the ultimate recipient of a number of documents stolen from Mr Ward. These stolen documents were used, in part, to corroborate the articles published in the Mail on Sunday

“At Mr Ward’s trial, Mr Wolman had admitted that his colleague Mr Lever had entered Mr Ward’s home with the assistance of Mr Ward’s former wife Leonorra and removed a number of documents.”

Mr Ward’s libel suit named Mail on Sunday managing editor John Wellington and editor emeritus of ANL, Peter Wright, as being jointly responsible for drafting the “knowingly false statement” published by Byline in March 2019.

Crucially, they had been made aware of Mr Ward’s claims of malpractice at the Mail on Sunday as far back as December 2011 when Mr Ward wrote to ANL outlining his case.

“They ignored the incontrovertible evidence of the individual acts of misconduct,” Mr Ward wrote in his libel claim, pointing out that his complaint was never investigated.

“Instead, they dismissed the complaints on the basis that these matters must have been examined and dealt with in the course of the previous trials and appeals.”

Mail on Sunday barristers tried to have Mr Ward’s claim struck out of the High Court before it was barely off the ground. 

In October last year, Judge Nicklin labelled one strike-out bid a “comprehensive and wide-ranging attack” – before dismissing it and refusing leave to appeal.

Mr Ward was due a further hearing on May 27th.

But he was emailed five days before by specialist media lawyer Keith Mathieson of law firm Reynolds, Porter Chamberlain confirming the terms of the Mail on Sunday’s settlement. 

Associated Newspapers Ltd’s official statement following their settlement with Mr Ward in May 2021

In a statement, which is being published in full below Byline’s March 5th 2019 story on Mr Ward’s case, the paper’s publisher said: “Associated Newspapers apologises to Mr Ward for the original statement as now withdrawn and for any distress or embarrassment caused.” 

Mr Ward commented: “This libel victory is the beginning of a process, not the end of one. I intend to expose the dishonesty which took place at the highest levels of government and the law. 

“No one facing inquiries should have to suffer criminal interference by a newspaper, less still should such misconduct be condoned by the authorities and allowed to go un-nvestigated. 

“Among my objectives will be the quashing of my convictions upon offences I did not commit and which were procured by criminal means.”

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