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Day: March 8, 2013

Football blogger sued for column which is critical of prospective owners. At what point is it an overreaction?

Today the administrators have exchanged contracts with the Portsmouth Supporters Trust over the sale of Portsmouth Football Club to the Supporters Trust as long as the High Court sanctions the sale of Fratton Park to PST for the price of three million. The court case is still pending.

A few days ago I penned the following but sat on it. As it seems clear now that the PST will take control of PFC then it is a good time to publish. This blog is about a situation where a potential owner wants to sue a blogger who posted an article about him detailing his history and business connections.

Well what is this? Two Portsmouth related articles within a month of each other? I am getting déjà vu from the days where I actually got paid for my views on the football club. Those were the days…young and idealistic and now I’m just heading towards middle age and bitter about the fact I’m unattractive and spent my Saturday night catching up on The Apprentice. Oh well.

So anyway is has all been kicking off on the Portsmouth Football Club front in the past few days and a column by a fellow former Carisbrooke High School student Mike Hall has caused legal proceedings to be opened against him. His column featured some details about the trio who are part of a consortium hoping to takeover Portsmouth Football Club. A consortium who – lets be blunt here – face a rather uphill battle to take over Portsmouth Football Club. They have an offer on the table but it is not one that (in all likelihood) will be accepted due to the fact the Football League have said so. So in essence they are fighting the good fight but for nothing. Well if it keeps them happy…

Unsurprisingly I am not going to regurgitate any of the column for legal reasons – nor make any allegations against anyone because I haven’t done any deep research myself – I’ll just deal with facts that are out there and how I think most people would react to the situation. These are the facts:

Mr. Hall is being sued.
Mishcon de Reya have been retained to fight the case for a client.
They instructed a PR company to issue a statement confirming they have started legal proceedings against Mr. Hall.
The consortium did send correspondence to the leader of Portsmouth City Council in an attempt to get them to not agree to the bridging loan (or get them to offer the same to their consortium).
The Football League have stated that the PST are the sole preferred bidders for the club (as per their correspondence with Portsmouth City Council).

Ok back to the blog…

The column was pulled from the website after initial legal proceedings were set out but after the author decided not to issue an apology, nor pay any damages, nor pay legal costs for the other side and the fact he has decided not to ensure that he wouldn’t repeat anything from the column ever again they have decided to sue him personally. If you want to read the full Press Release – yes they have instructed a company to issue a Press Release (with basic grammatical errors) that they are suing him – then you can do so here.

Now as someone who aced his Journalism Law exam (in just 30 minutes I might add – it was a three hour exam and I walked out after half an hour) I have always been very clear on my thought processes regarding critical statements. I err very much on a safety first principle. So I was interested in what exactly was defamatory regarding the column. Having read the column I do not see anything that would stand up in court as to lower someone’s reputation in the minds of right thinking people. Nor do I see anything that couldn’t be defended as fair comment and I’m informed that nothing written was factually inaccurate (although I personally do not know whether they are or not – the stuff written was stuff you’d expect to find relatively easily at Companies House and their Swiss counterpart.

There was only one line that could put the author into legal bother (in my mind) and that line isn’t about the person who is suing – nor anyone in his family – so I don’t see it. In fact if I’m being 100% honest the whole article screams of someone being very careful not to be defamatory and going out of his way to cover himself legally.

The person who is instigating these legal proceedings certainly hasn’t been tight with regards to the solicitors he has hired to represent him (although he really should look at the PR firm they have assigned to issuing that Press Release – seriously basic grammar errors folks) but one thing is interesting – the firm he has hired – Mishcon de Reya are not specialists at going to court for defamation. They class themselves as specialists in five areas – analysing risk, protection of assets, managing wealth, resolving disputes and building businesses. So they do not want to go to court on this issue – they want to resolve it before court proceedings. If the plaintiff (do we use that term in the UK or is that just a Judge Judy thing?) wants this resolved before court – either that or he’s really bad at picking lawyers – my money is firmly on the former.

Now this brings up another question, why would he want this resolved before court? Now to me – a layman bum – it screams out that they want to discredit Mr Hall and scare and silence him. If Mr Hall settles out of court then they can discredit all of his work and maybe (in their eyes) just maybe still get to takeover Portsmouth Football Club. Let us be honest here – Pompey is actually ripe for a consortium of businessmen with a few bob as there is certainly money to be made out of the old girl. I can see why businessmen would be interested in buying the club. I can also see why businessmen would explore every legal avenue they could to get the best possible outcome for them.

I know Mr. Hall has said he intends to fight this all the way and wants his day in court. He doesn’t intend on settling out of court and essentially wants the people involved to prove they have been defamed by his words. Legally I think they will struggle mightily to do this but again I don’t think they ever want this to get to court. This is a tactic to get Mr. Hall to think about whether he wants to take on someone who has the money to throw at the case in the courts if needs be.

This case will obviously run and run but I have one serious issue with this whole situation. Surely if there were factual inaccuracies in the column then why didn’t they come out and issue a statement saying basically that these individual comments are factually inaccurate – with the evidence they were inaccurate – and then ask Mr Hall to apologise instead of going heavy handed and go through legal proceedings as the first measure?

If someone wrote something factually inaccurate about me and I cared enough to launch legal proceedings I would first put out a statement saying that certain things were inaccurate and explain/prove why and then ask for an apology. My first point of call wouldn’t be to retain lawyers and give the author 24 hours to apologise, pay me money for damages and legal costs and to take an understanding never to publish those – or similar comments again and if I didn’t get all that within 24 hours issue a Press Release saying that I was suing the other person.

I think in conclusion the whole situation reeks and in my opinion it now seems personal. Businessmen are not getting their own way and are blaming Mr. Hall for this and not the fact that they came to the party too late. It should be noted that these individuals tried to contact the leader of Portsmouth City Council to warn them off offering a bridging loan to the Portsmouth Supporters Trust – the letter can be read here. The letter incorrectly states that their consortium are the preferred bidder in the eyes of the administrator and the Football League. In fact the Football League contacted PCC during the debate to confirm that the PST are the sole preferred bidder according to the Portsmouth News. (update: On 08/03/11 PKF exchanged contracts with PST over the sale of the club to them) Also as they have said they do not believe PCC are in a position to offer such a bridging loan (and PCC subsequently have) then surely they will open up a legal challenge if they believe that the council have overstepped their boundary?

It’ll all come out in the wash but all we know for now is that they intend on suing Mr. Hall. If you want to help his cause then a fighting fund has been setup to help with his legal costs and if there is any money leftover at the end then all the money will go in donations to the Portsmouth Supporters Trust. You can donate via PayPal: You can also add your name(s) to an e-petition here asking for the legal threat to be rescinded.

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