Pompey, PR Own Goals, Libel Reform, Litigation

I tweet mainly about football and politics, and I am sure that there are people interested in just one of those following me who wish I wouldn’t go on about the other thing quite so much.  This is a rare case where the two are inextricably linked.  It relates on the one hand to the struggle for ownership of Portsmouth FC, and on the other to the law of libel.  Let’s deal with the Pompey angle first.

I’ve referred often in past blogs to the involvement of Portpin in Pompey in unflattering terms.  For some time, in parallel with the dispute over the valuation of Fratton Park, there has been another bidding group trying to muscle in – the consortium fronted by Keith Harris, lately of the ailing brokers Seymour Pierce.  Rather than rehash the reasons for caution over this, I’ll refer you to two pieces by Mike Hall, here and here, and feel the need to say not much more on the matter.  Mike Hall doesn’t make the point, but the would-be Finance Director, John Redgate, held the same position under Portpin and then CSI, and so provides further continuity between the three.

There was originally a third piece, since taken down.  This examined the background of another member of the Harris consortium, Pascal Najadi.  I am not going to say anything about this gentleman’s role beyond this: he has threatened Mike Hall with legal action for defamation in a press release which reportedly came from David Bick at Square 1 Consulting. You can click on the image below to enlarge, or view it as a  pdf.

Bicklarge

I have tried to find out from Mr Bick why the heading names Portsmouth FC alongside Pascal Najadi.  The club are not party to the threatened action, and Mr Najadi owns no stake or interest in the club.  It is, in the most literal sense possible, nothing to do with Portsmouth FC.  So why pretend it is?

I also tried to find out from Mr Bick whether he issued the release himself, or if someone else did.  It names Mishcon de Reya, but they wouldn’t comment on it when I spoke to them.  I don’t have a number for Mr Najadi, but the release says “call David Bick”, so I did.  No answer.  Because there is a very real problem with the release – it is mostly gibberish.  Not gibberish in the sense of “employing specialist legal language”, but gibberish in the sense of “failing completely in spelling, grammar, and syntax.”

We should consider the possibility that some malicious soul has put that release out, naming Mr Najadi, Mr Bick, and Mishcon, but written it in the most illiterate manner in order to discredit them.  The Harris bid has attracted a fair amount of ridicule, including the now-obligatory “Downfall” spoof, as well as the more forensic attention of bloggersThe press release was sent in the first place to a Hereford blogger, which seems strange, and as the piece explains, it seemed to come from Malaysia rather than London.

I would expect an early report of forgery from Mr Bick, but there has been no disavowal of the press release after several days.  The reluctance of Mishcon de Reya to own up to involvement in this fiasco is becoming more understandable.  Law rests on precision in language, and there is precious little of it in that press release, beyond the clear and onerous conditions it imposes on Mike Hall.

The tie-up between the footballing and legal/political aspects of this story is the topicality of the case with regard to libel reform.  Writers in any sphere can be subjected to legal action designed to silence them before the public has a chance to judge the merits of a case for themselves.  Without making any comment about the accuracy or otherwise of Hall’s third piece, it is clear that being a blogger can in general be a perilous occupation even when the facts are on the writer’s side.  The legal process is at present slow-moving and expensive for individuals without major legal and financial resources behind them.

The law surrounding libel and press comment has for a long time been held up as something in our legal system requiring urgent and widespread reform.  That is not to say that anybody wants a “wild west” outcome where anybody is free to libel people without being held accountable.  But at present the law can be abused to prevent the disclosure of important, relevant, and true information about figures in public life and their activity.  If you peruse the libelreform.org website you will find a number of cases – including the infamous one involving Sheffield Wednesday fans – where the law has failed to provide a legal system that is fair, affordable, and easily understood by everyone involved in it.

There is a Defamation Bill before Parliament at present which would remedy a lot of the defects of the law as it stands, but it is under threat because it has been “hijacked” in the House of Lords in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.  Under the leadership of Lord Puttnam it has been amended to introduce press regulation in a totally unacceptable form.  Puttnam has changed the direction of the Bill from being a moderate and sensible repair to libel law, to something which has no chance of reaching the statute book because it muzzles the press and public.  If this Bill fails, and at present it is likely to, there is no guarantee that a replacement can be quickly got through Parliament any time soon.  If you would like to sign the petition to MPs to save the present Bill so that the offending Puttnam clause can be removed, you can do so on the libelreform.org website.  It’s time to rebalance the law and defend free speech.

There is a “fighting fund” (see bottom of this blog for details) for Mike Hall’s defence, because the issue is that even were the court case to end quickly in defeat for Mr Najadi, it could still cost a lot to fund the defence far enough to see it get to court.  The fund has had plenty of contributions from supporters of Pompey who are concerned that someone who has done so much to expose the motives of others involved with the club in the last five years should now be threatened.

It is a remarkable tribute to the accuracy of Hall’s earlier pieces, many of which make strong statements about wealthy people able to afford expensive lawyers, that nobody has tried to sue him before.  Many of the things he has unearthed have been repeated by mainstream journalists who all have sensitive legal departments to restrain them in doubtful cases.  Neither of the other two parties in the Harris takeover have disputed the facts as Hall lays them out.  Mr Najadi is already falling victim to the “Streisand effect” in that while very few people had heard of him before this press release, he has now achieved a great deal of celebrity, although those coming late to the event will not necessarily know what Mike Hall wrote about him.

And that is the peril of our unreformed libel law; it offers little opportunity for quiet mediation and arbitration.  Instead it imposes a confrontational approach on litigants which risks unfair collateral damage to their reputations when they are taking action against popular figures with an ardent group of supporters.

It is of no benefit to Mr Najadi as a litigant that the legal process is so expensive; no litigant wants to see their opponent bankrupted first if it reduces their chance of being able to extract damages later on.  In the internet age it is simply impossible to “unpublish” something once it gets into Google’s cache, or spreads to parts of the world out of the reach of the London courts (despite the dreadful reputation English law has for libel tourism).  The law is way out of date when measured against modern media and modern expectations that justice has to be available to all and not just those who can afford expensive lawyers.  Then again, you can’t always judge the strenfh of a client’s case by their expensive lawyer.  Chris Huhne and his partner Carina Trimingham have both had unfavourable outcomes despite having retained Mishcon de Reya.

Now that the court date of April 10th/11th has been set for the hearing to value Fratton Park so that PKF can sell Portsmouth FC to the Pompey Supporters’ Trust, it is inevitable that there will be another attempt by the Harris/Portpin zombie collective to derail proceedings.  During the Portsmouth City Council meeting deciding whether or not to make a loan to PST, a remarkable email arrived from the Harris bid misleadingly claiming “preferred bidder” status.  PKF have made it clear that since the Football League will only entertain PST’s bid, PKF have no option but to make PST their preferred bidder.  It is debatable in any case whether a bid which met with widespread fan hostility could be said to guarantee any kind of viable outcome for club or creditors.  I have spoken to a creditor myself who admits that a bid hostile to PST is not something they would support, for precisely that reason.

Since the Football League is effectively a “private club”, there is nothing in law that can be done to compel them to change their mind.  It is because the FL is such a private club that HMRC have had to put up with the Football Creditor Rule in football club administrations – if the Premier League and Football League won’t let you in, for whatever reasons they choose, then the likely outcome is liquidation.  The League have no responsibility to the creditors of their member clubs unless they choose to make it so (as they have done with players).

Supporters of the Trust bid will be hoping that the court rules in favour of a valuation they can meet (the evidence is that the PST offer is at least equal to any of several valuations that have been carried out) and that PKF proceed quickly with a sale to allow PST to take ownership and start rebuilding.

Fans have contributed massively in terms of individual pledges to PST, and a collection of more wealthy fans have put in a substantial sum themselves to fund the club even while PKF are running it. Getting the PST bid to completion from here relies on the continued support of the Football League, and of Portsmouth City Council in making the loan to PST.  PCC have already taken extensive legal advice about their position, and are very sure of it.  As I’ve shown above, if the League are happy with PST then there isn’t much anyone else can do about it.  There has been a lot of chuntering from what I suspect to be plants and sock puppets in the social media, trying to destabilize the PST bid, but that is a subject for another blog.

Mike Hall stands by the content of the removed third piece.  Even without that piece being considered, we are entitled to be cautious about the Harris bid given its provenance and the erratic strategy employed by the Harris PR team.  I saw enough in Hall’s first two pieces to be clear in my own mind that this bid is something to be opposed rather than welcomed.  However, if anybody from the Harris/Bick/Najadi side wishes now to respond to any of the queries I have made previously, I will be happy to update this blog to accommodate them.

Of course, anyone can reach for their lawyers and start making threats against the League, City Council, or anybody else – but they should make sure before they do so that it isn’t going to backfire on them.

To contribute via Paypal to the fighting fund for Mike Hall, please enter SOS_Pompey@hotmail.co.uk as the recipient.  You can also sign a petition asking Pascal Najadi to drop the threat of legal action here.

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One Response to Pompey, PR Own Goals, Libel Reform, Litigation

  1. Loverat says:

    I think I came across this case a few days ago. Well, if the libel action is like many of the cases brought by libel claimants this last few years (very weak, vexatious cases) I am not sure you need to bother with a fighting fund. In fact you probably would not need to bother with solicitors either. I know of a few libel defendants who have successfully fought cases without signficant funds and were not represented. They sat back and watched the opposing legal teams and claimants make complete fools of themselves.

    Of course if a barrister offers his services pro bono that would be a reasonable offer. Otherwise, if the case is likely to fail (and this can be checked by reading a few past libel judgements) I really would not bother. The judge will consider the points of merit regardless of who, how and even whether the points are actually presented or not. This is a serious post by the way. Libel law needs changing but judges are applying common sense in their decision making. Anyone who is up to date with current libel cases should tell you the same.

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