Newspaper magnate Desmond's £1.25m bill for lost libel case

Jurors throw out Daily Express owner's action against author
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Richard Desmond, the billionaire publisher, was last night facing an estimated legal bill of at least £1.25m after losing his libel case against the biographer Tom Bower. It took the jury four hours to decide that Mr Desmond was not defamed by Mr Bower's account of a confrontation with a rival newspaper mogul.

Mr Desmond claimed that he had been falsely accused of interfering in the editorial policy of one of his newspapers to conduct a personal vendetta against Lord Black of Crossharbour, and that he had been equally falsely portrayed as a "wimp".

The author claimed that the disputed passage, in a biography of Conrad Black, was broadly true, and in any case was not defamatory. After the verdict some members of the jury asked Mr Bower to autograph their copies of his book, which he did with obvious pleasure. "I am very grateful to you. You have been an absolutely marvellous jury. You have done a great service to British journalism," he told them.

Mr Desmond, who owns four national newspapers, including the Daily Express and Daily Star, plus OK magazine, put a brave face on defeat.

"I sued Mr Bower for defamation because he made inaccurate and damaging allegations about me, yet he refused to apologise and publish a correction," he said. "[Mr] Bower made a series of errors about events and timings and even got the name of one of my newspapers wrong.

"His biggest mistake was in thinking I would not go to court to uphold my reputation and the resulting action has cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds to defend a few ill-thought-out remarks that were not even essential to his book. It was worth it to stand up in court and set the record straight."

Despite the self-justification, the case leaves observers puzzled about why the case was brought at all. The hearing, which took almost two weeks, was over a single paragraph on pages 337 and 338 of a long book that was not even about Mr Desmond.

So what drove this tough, buccaneering capitalist to launch an expensive court case over a paragraph in a book about an old business rival? One possible explanation was that he did not like what he had heard about another book Tom Bower was writing, which was to be a life of Mr Desmond. Interviewed by a newspaper in 2006, Mr Desmond was asked to name his favourite author, and replied "Tom Bower". He was obviously not being serious, but the writer with the reputation for destroying the reputations of rich men was on his mind even then. He did not want Tom Bower writing about him, and was prepared to use his vast fortune in an attempt to stop him.

In court Mr Desmond claimed that he was reading Tom Bower's book Conrad and Lady Black, Dancing on the Edge on holiday and came unexpectedly on this reference to himself. He told the jury, he had not even thought to do what most famous people do when picking up a book about someone they know – look himself up in the index. After consulting his wife, he decided he must do something to protect his reputation.

One of the many ironies of this case is that Tom Bower, despite his well earned reputation as a biographer who rips apart his subjects' reputations, did not mean to offend Mr Desmond.

This became clear at the start of the trial – but could not be made public until after yesterday's verdict. There were actually two jury trials, but the first lasted less than a day, and had to be aborted after Mr Bower's quick witted counsel, Ronald Thwaites, had ripped apart the opening address to the jury by his fellow QC, Ian Winter, representing Mr Desmond.

Mr Winter treated the original jury to an account of what sort of writer Tom Bower was, referring to him as an "unauthorised" biographer, and describing the book on Mr Black as an "expose" rather than a balanced account of his life. This might have been fair enough, except that Mr Desmond's legal team had already accepted that there was no malice in what Mr Bower had written about their client. By law, it was too late for them to change their line of attack, and the judge, David Eady, reluctantly agreed with Mr Thwaites that the trial would have to be restarted in front a new jury, adding considerably to the legal costs of Mr Desmond.

The story, as Mr Bower told it, was that Lord Black, who then owned The Daily Telegraph, and Mr Desmond had had a court battle over the ownership of a printing plant and, having lost that, Mr Desmond ordered one of his newspapers to run an article about the parlous finances of Lord Black's businesses.

Mr Bower claimed the story, published in the Sunday Express in 2002, was true and therefore there was no need for Mr Desmond to apologise for it, but after the two newspaper proprietors had met in front of a mediator, Mr Desmond gave way – thus proving that Lord Black's technique of "grinding his critics into the dust" never failed.

But Mr Desmond protested that his newspaper had got its facts wrong, and therefore an apology was needed. He claimed it damaged his reputation to have it suggested that he could be browbeaten by a rival proprietor.

He asked the jury to think what might happen if Rupert Murdoch were to chance upon this same paragraph, part way through a densely written book. Mr Murdoch might infer that the man who owns the Daily Express was a pushover, and next time their newspapers were engaged in a price war, he might think that his rival was only bluffing. The jury was obviously not convinced.

Mr Desmond's denial that he interfered with the editorial line of his newspapers gave rise to another running legal battle, which the jury was not allowed to hear, but which Mr Thwaites eventually won by terrier-like persistence.

Mr Bower's legal team wanted to be allowed to tell the jury that Mr Desmond had made his fortune selling pornography, as a way of casting doubt on his fitness as a newspaper owner. They also wanted the jury to hear the tape of a telephone conversation in which Mr Desmond threatened a hedge fund manager with whom he was in dispute about money.

"I'm the worst fucking enemy you'll ever have," Mr Desmond told him – and almost as soon as those words were uttered, a libellous article about the hedge fund appeared in the Sunday Express. As part of the settlement of the libel case that followed, Mr Desmond admitted in open court that remarks he had made in his newspaper office had set that particular article in motion.

At the outset of the trial, Mr Justice Eady ruled that the tape, and Mr Desmond's past as a pornographer, were irrelevant to the case. In one of his many exchanges with the judge, Mr Thwaites referred several times to what he called the "forbidden word", that word being "pornographer".

Eventually, Mr Thwaites won the right to use the P-word in front of the jury, and in a late victory, succeeded in having the tape played too. Neither piece of evidence sat easily with the picture that Mr Desmond drew of himself as the benign, hands-off proprietor.

The grand orator: Ronald Thwaites QC

Yesterday's verdict is a boost for the already formidable reputation of Ronald Thwaites, the QC whose aggressive cross-examining of Richard Desmond helped destroy the case he tried to bring against Tom Bower.

In an age when courtroom oratory has largely gone out of fashion in favour of the coldly precise and logical presentation of facts, Mr Thwaites is among the few top flight lawyers who behaves like an actor on a stage. If anyone fills the place left vacant by the death five years ago of the legendary libel lawyer Peter Carter-Ruck, it is Ronald Thwaites.

Cross examining Mr Desmond, he went through the gamut of human emotions, from friendly banter to outrage. When Mr Desmond made a throw-away remark suggesting that letters Tom Bower produced in court might be fake, Mr Thwaites was furious, unable to allow such a disgraceful slur to pass unchallenged.

When Mr Desmond tried to impress the jury by showing off his knowledge of rock music, Mr Thwaites was quizzical: "Are you going to sing for us? It would make a pleasant diversion. Do you have a good voice?"

"I don't actually," Mr Desmond admitted. And in one of those rapid changes of mood so disconcerting for the person he is interrogating, Mr Thwaites suddenly stopped pretending to be his friend. "Then don't sing," he said.

Aged 63, Mr Thwaites has practised as a barrister since 1970, and became a QC in 1987, dealing almost exclusively in civil law. Mr Thwaites is not especially popular with other barristers, many of whom resent his aggressive style, but he commands respect, as was demonstrated by his being named by Chambers Directory Awards as the 2009 "Defamation Silk of the Year".

Andy McSmith