Every so often one gets confused reading the newspapers. Some things are reported which are undoubtedly false. Some things are mistaken. Sometimes the writer of the article seems not to understand what they are writing about.
And, with that preamble, I am confused by a story today reported in the Mail Online. Regular readers will know that the Mail Online is far from my favourite news outlet, although, as it is one of the most “popular” news websites in the world, I suspect those in charge are not bothered what I think.
Today’s story refers to the former “call girl” who went by the nom de plume of “Belle de Jour” and whose exploits were recounted in a blog and then in book form. She was then revealed to be Dr Brooke Magnanti, a research scientist. Her role was played in the TV adaptation of her writing, by Billie Piper.
This story is of interest to this blog because of the legal actions which have been raised as a result of “disagreement” between Dr Magnanti and her former boyfriend, Owen Morris. And this is where the confusion appears.
I read, many years ago, in a book on journalism that the goal of a journalist writing an article was to leave the reader with greater awareness, understanding and knowledge of a story after reading the piece than before. (I am sure readers of this blog sometimes feel I do not manage that either, but I am not a journalist!)
The Mail today reports the story under the snappy headline “Ex-boyfriend of call-girl blogger Belle de Jour wins High Court apology after she falsely accused him of threatening to expose her identity for money”. The full piece can be read here. The Mail says:-
The ex-boyfriend of Belle de Jour, the blogger whose life as a call girl inspired a TV series, has spoken of his relief after winning a High Court apology over false statements she made about him.
Former RAF officer Owen Morris said Brooke Magnanti, the former scientist behind the pen-name, had ‘destroyed’ his reputation by accusing him in the Sunday Times of threatening to expose her identity for money. She also claimed his behaviour towards her had become so threatening that she had once taken out a restraining order on him.
Mr Morris, 38, said: ‘I am glad that the truth behind the Belle de Jour media machine is finally starting to come out. The grim reality is diametrically opposed to the marketed myth.’
Tomorrow, the Sunday Times is due to make a public apology at the High Court, confirming the accusations it carried were baseless.”
That all seems straightforward, doesn’t it? It would seem clear that Dr Magnanti has lost, and Mr Morris has won.
But close reading confirms that in fact the case was not against Dr Magnanti, but only against the Sunday Times.
A quick bit of research also reveals that, on 28th February 2012, the Sunday Times published an apology to Mr Morris:-
In articles published in 2010 about the author who blogged under the pseudonym Belle de Jour (Life without the mask of Belle de Jour, News Review, March 28, Coming clean brought Belle de Jour death threats, News, March 28 and Witter: Brooke Magnanti, Magazine, November 21), we stated that a restraining order had been obtained against Flt. Lt. Morris, that he had made threats of violence against Belle de Jour, and that he had threatened to reveal her identity to the media for financial gain. We accept our allegations were incorrect and we apologise for the distress, damage and embarrassment caused to Flt Lt Morris. We have paid him damages and his legal costs.
The apology specifically refers to issues mentioned in the Mail piece. How can this be so?
It seems that the options are as follows:-
1 Mr Morris did not accept the apology, nor payment of damages and costs, and elected to proceed with his High Court action. That seems unlikely, especially as the libel laws in England are focussed on prompt resolution, where possible, early apologies, and a restrained attitude to damages. Frankly, if Mr Morris rejected the apology above only to receive a similar one in the courts now, it is probable that his legal bill will far exceed any recovery he might make!
2 The Sunday Times, having apologised for libelling Mr Morris, then repeated the libels. If so, one would expect the Mail piece to refer to this, because that would be an aggravation of the libel.
3 The Mail has got the story wrong.
4 The Mail is in fact referring to a different court case altogether.
On 22nd June 2011 the UK Press Gazette reported that Mr Morris was suing the Sunday Times for libel, claiming £100,000 in damages. The Gazette said:-
Owen Morris is demanding £100,000 in damages from Sunday Times publishers Times Newspapers over a story that appeared in March 2010 headlined ‘Life without the mask of Belle de Jour’- about the woman, whose real name is Brooke Magnanti.
He is also suing over a second story – ‘Brooke Magnanti: The World’s Fastest Interview’– that appeared in the Sunday Times in November 2010.
The first story claimed she had successfully won a court order restraining him from contacting her because he was guilty of seriously harassing her, and that he had approached tabloids to expose her identity as a call girl, then deliberately lied to conceal his actions claiming it was the tabloids who had approached him.
Morris is seeking aggravated damages, claiming the paper made no attempt at checking the allegations with him before publication and had refused to apologise for the stories.
So we have an action raised by June 2011, a published apology in February 2012, and the case is still in the High Court? That seems odd.
There is another case ongoing regarding Mr Morris and Dr Magnanti. This one proceeds at the Court of Session in Edinburgh where Mr Morris is pursuing her for defamation. The action is only against her, and not against any other publisher.
The case is at an early stage, having been raised in November 2012, and only now reaching the stage of the “closing of the record”. (This is a procedural step in a civil case in Scotland. Now the court will determine, what further procedure is needed – whether a legal “debate” is required or a hearing of evidence before a judge or jury appropriate now.)
The Herald reported on the raising of this action in December 2012. A copy of the piece can be read here, although, as explained below, it is a revised article.
The Herald report in fact managed to be the subject of a complaint by Dr Magnanti to the Press Complaints Commission! The PCC published in March 2013 its resolution of the complaint:-
Dr Brooke Magnanti aka Belle De Jour complained to the Press Complaints Commission under Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice about an article which reported that her former partner, Flight Lieutenant Owen Morris, had launched a legal action against her. The complainant was particularly concerned about a claim that Mr Morris had previously ‘sued a newspaper successfully after it published false claims by her about his conduct towards her’. The complainant said that the claim wrongly suggested that she had been responsible for the libellous claims.
The matter was resolved when the PCC negotiated a private apology to the complainant.
You will see, if you click on the Herald piece, that the line “sued a newspaper successfully after it published false claims by her about his conduct towards her” in the complained about piece now reads “sued a newspaper successfully after it published inaccurate reports about his conduct towards her”.
It is possible that the Mail story refers to the Scottish case, although I do not think so as (a) it does not involve the Sunday Times and (b) is not at the High Court.
In fact, it almost looks as if the Mail story should be dated February 2012, and not July 2013!
On the basis that Dr Magnanti complained to the PCC about the Herald story, I suspect she will be picking up the laptop to make a new complaint about the Mail piece on the same grounds.
Today’s Mail story manages to do the reverse of what a good newspaper story should!
However, it is now “out there” on the web, and already picked up by numerous “news aggregators”. On that basis, even if the Mail story was totally wrong (and it might not be although I am confused about how it can be correct), the internet will maintain that it is true.
As Terry Pratchett wrote in “The Truth”:-
“A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”
But when all these legal procedure, apologies, and complaints still leads to confusion, who can tell what the truth is!
Posted by Paul McConville