Named, shamed... and suing

The News of the World's anti-paedophile campaign may have grabbed all the headlines, but after the vigilante mobs comes the litigation.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When the dust finally settles on the News of the World's paedophile "name and shame" campaign the victims of the vigilante gangs might want to spend some time with their lawyers.

When the dust finally settles on the News of the World's paedophile "name and shame" campaign the victims of the vigilante gangs might want to spend some time with their lawyers.

Potential legal actions against the newspaper and claims to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme could be worth up to £1m. Lawyers believe innocent victims who were mistaken for paedophiles and set upon by the gangs or forced to move home may be able to bring actions for defamation.

One man has already called in the leading libel specialists Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners. Michael Horgan, a 55-year-old father of two from south London, was targeted by an anti-paedophile group after the News of the World published his name, which he shares with a paedophile who lives in his neighbourhood. The Sunday paper has refused to publish a clarification, and now, Mr Horgan, an engineer, is considering suing the paper for defamation in a claim that could be worth as much as £100,000 in damages.

Mr Horgan's troubles began on 2 August when his name, telephone number and address wrongly appeared on a list of paedophiles circulated in the Lewisham area. Although he was able to convince some of his neighbours that it was a case of mistaken identity he said he was "terrified" by the risk to his family. The police responded by placing a permanent guard on his home and diverting all telephone calls to his home.

Mr Horgan's lawyer, Cameron Doley, a partner at Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners, explains: "We took the action before the paper withdrew its campaign. The paper has written back claiming it has done nothing wrong. But that is no consolation to my client. There can't be anything worse than being described as a paedophile."

Mr Doley said that the News of the World picture accompanying Mr Horgan's name was too indistinct to make it clear that his client was not Michael Horgan the paedophile. "It was simply a picture of a white middle-aged man with glasses. Mr Horgan has gone on holiday with his wife and when he returns will consider his position," said Mr Doley.

Amber Melville-Brown, a leading libel lawyer at London law firm Finers Stephens Innocent, argues that News International could face claims even though the details in the paedophile register which the newspaper published were correct.

Under the current law a libel claimant need only show that the paper has published a defamatory statement that refers to or identifies the claimant. Ms Melville-Brown says: "Although the potential claimant in these cases may not have been identified in black and white, where the name, address and photo of the real convicted offender is correct, the effect of publication was to allow people to mistake others for the named paedophiles in the paper."

The classic case which established unintentional defamation by a newspaper in this country was heard nearly 100 years ago, in 1908. A barrister brought a claim against the Sunday Chronicle for an article that had referred to a purely fictional character. It made up the name of Mr Artemus Jones, a churchwarden from Peckham, south London, and then went on to describe him, in none-too-spiritual terms, as "haunting the casinos by day and by night betraying a most unholy delight in the society of female butterflies". A real Artemus Jones, not a resident of Peckham and not a churchwarden, but by chance and bad luck for the Chronicle a lawyer, sued on the grounds that people had understood the references to be to him. He won.

Mr Horgan and other innocent victims of the campaign may be able to rely on this case. Ms Melville-Brown says: "The victims will be bearing the bruises to show they have been identified as paedophiles and therefore lowered in the eyes of right-minded members of society."

But, she says, defamation cases are never "clear cut" and require substantial funds. However, if it turns out that any of the names or addresses published by the paper are incorrect and this has directly led to attacks against innocent people then the injured party will have a stronger case. They need not be physically assaulted or driven from their homes, but only "shunned and avoided" by neighbours.

The Data Protection Act 1984 also allows the grant of compensation for damage and distress as a result of the use of inaccurate data. Additional compensation, irrespective of the cause of the attack, can be sought from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme. However, pay-outs for beatings, where no serious injury is caused, will amount to no more than a few thousand pounds, and the criminal trial is likely to take many months. Furthermore, the victim will have to relive the horror of the attack in the witness box, although he may in fact gain some satisfaction from facing his attacker.

Meanwhile, the News of the World is still facing a political backlash for its actions. Although it may have forced some concessions from the Government, its role in acting as a catalyst for the recent violence has brought calls for a criminal prosecution for inciting a riot.

Robin Corbett, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, says what happened was "perfectly predictable". He adds: "That is why I have asked the Home Office whether they will consider prosecution for incitement to public disorder offences."

Yesterday it emerged that the News of the World's editor, Rebekah Wade, is expected to be called before a Home Affairs Select Committee to justify the paper's name and shame campaign. But campaigners for press freedom argue that the newspaper should be exempt from any sanction.

In the US, a newspaper would probably be protected by what is known as the "heckler's veto". This protection against liability is provided to those who make inflammatory statements while expressing their views at street corners, on soap boxes, etc. It was established to protect anti-war protesters in the "Land of the Free", and to support the interests of free expression which might be argued by US newspapers were they to find themselves in the position of the News of the World. The fundamental principle upon which it is based is that any restriction on the right to free speech for fear of an unwelcome reaction from others is a step too far.

The News of the World has dropped its name and shame campaign saying that it would continue to lobby for a public register of child sex offenders - the so-called Sarah's Law, named after the murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne. The paper has also condemned vigilante violence.

Despite this, the impact of its campaign has already reached the courts. This month a convicted paedophile who was named by the News of the World walked free from court after the judge said publicity had created "exceptional circumstances" under which he had suffered. Judge Stuart Fish told 51-year-old former schoolmaster Raymond Cullens, who has now been twice tried and convicted for the abuse of pupils, that publicity had made him a "marked man."

"You and your family have suffered considerable adverse publicity although of course it has to be said you are the author of your own misfortune," said the judge. He said that he was satisfied there were "exceptional circumstances to suspend the term of imprisonment."

Cullens' name and photograph were used in the second week of the News of the World campaign as he awaited sentencing for sexually assaulting his former pupil Kim Hawksworth, now 22.

But the most serious fear expressed by the police and probation service is over those paedophiles who have been driven underground. Away from the watchful eye of the police, they now pose a much more serious threat to children.