By Brian Cathcart
MOST PEOPLE, when caught with their pants down, act embarrassed and swiftly pull them up. The Daily Mail is different. With its grubby underwear around its knees it points angrily at the person standing nearest and shouts: ‘Look at him! I saw him pick his nose!’
The latest instance of this shameless distraction tactic is the defeat of the Mail’s elaborate and expensive attempt to persuade a court to throw out claims by Baroness Lawrence, Prince Harry, Elton John and others that the newspaper group unlawfully breached their privacy.
In a lengthy decision, Mr Justice Nicklin has rejected the Mail’s arguments and said the matter could go to trial (probably not before 2025). On the key point, which was the Mail’s argument that the claims had come too late, the judge said he rejected this ‘without difficulty’.
And how did the Mail react to this very obvious setback, a setback which is humiliating in itself and which opens the way to a trial that could be devastating to the whole Rothermere newspaper organisation?
‘We welcome Mr Justice Nicklin’s decision’ – wait for it – ‘that the information we and other newspapers supplied to the Leveson Inquiry under strict grounds of confidentiality remains subject to the Restriction Order imposed by Lord Justice Leveson. In a significant victory for justice and the Mail, the Judge ruled that the information should not have been used by the Claimants and must be struck out from the case.’
Never mind that the Mail group failed to prevent these cases going to trial, a matter which it treated at the time of the hearings as of the utmost importance, almost life-or-death. In the small print they found something that, if looked at in a perverse and biased way, could be dressed up as a ‘significant victory for justice and the Mail’. They don’t care about truth or reality so they went with that.
Before doing what the Mail wants us to do and discussing this pathetic distraction let us first do what they don’t want us to do and recall what is really at stake here.
The Mail group, officially Associated Newspapers Ltd or ANL, has always, always denied hacking mobile phones illegally, just as it has denied commissioning private investigators to do illegal things, or at least knowing about it if they did. Equally, it has made its close relationship with Baroness Lawrence, the mother of murdered teenager Stephen, central to its public image for decades. And further, for years now it has led the field in its hatred of, and vilification of, the Sussexes.
Now those three – unlawful news gathering, Lawrence and Sussex – are bundled up together in a single court case that could, if it goes the way of the claimants, publicly reduce Britain’s most self-righteous and sanctimonious newspaper, which presents itself as a pillar of law and order, to the level of the squalid, law-breaking, defunct and unmourned News of the World. Worse, it could expose the group to years and years of expensive lawsuits from others it may have wronged.
No wonder Associated was so determined to block this case. No wonder it threw every conceivable argument into an attempt to derail the litigation before it got going. It could hardly have more to lose.
But it failed. The case is going ahead. As the judge put it, to succeed in blocking the proceedings at this stage the Mail group would have to land a ‘knockout blow’, proving that the seven claimants had no real chance of making a credible case at trial. He went on to declare: ‘Associated has not been able to deliver a “knockout blow” to the claims of any of these claimants.’
Baroness Lawrence, Prince Harry, Elton John, David Furnish, Elizabeth Hurley, Sir Simon Hughes and Sadie Frost Law will have their day – or rather several weeks – in court. No doubt Associated will defend the case at trial with characteristic vigour, so it will be an event to look forward to.
But where in all this is the Mail’s ‘significant victory’? It relates to the side-issue of whether or not information that was disclosed in confidence by the Mail group to the 2011-12 Leveson Inquiry should be available to the claimants.
The judge ruled, as the Mail had asked him to, that the claimants could not legitimately make use of this information at this stage. That does not mean, however, that the information (which presumably relates to the use of private investigators) will not ultimately play a part in the case.
Various routes are open to the claimants to gain legitimate access to the material and if those fail there is always the option, as the trial approaches, of using the normal disclosure process whereby parties are obliged to share materials that are relevant to the proceedings. It is very hard to see how the Mail could duck that.
At its very best, then, the Mail’s ‘significant victory’ is an inconvenience to the claimants and possibly a delay on the proceedings. In the long run it will almost certainly make no difference.
So sunk in dishonesty is the Mail, however, and so unworried about misleading its readers and the general public, that it is happy to call an important legal setback a victory and to attempt to draw attention away from its own humiliation with the most transparent of distractions.
And of course most of the rest of the corporate press will play along with this. Rupert Murdoch’s Times (edited by Tony Gallagher, who worked for the Daily Mail from 1990 to 2006) was the first to parrot the Mail’s line.