Theatre critic alleges Sunday Express fired him over ‘revenge porn’ photos

Mark Shenton is seeking compensation for unfair dismissal after he was accused of bringing the Sunday Express into "disrepute"

A leading theatre critic was sacked after nude pictures of him on a gay website were sent to his employers in an act of “revenge porn”, an employment tribunal heard.

Mark Shenton is seeking compensation for unfair dismissal after he was accused of bringing the Sunday Express into “disrepute” when naked pictures of him were discovered on a “paid-for” gay website.

His case comes after peers recently called for the rules around “revenge porn” to be clarified to help police and prosecutors secure convictions using existing law.

The House of Lords Communications Committee called on the Director of Public Prosecutions to clarify under what circumstances it becomes a criminal offence to post explicit pictures of ex-partners on social media websites, following a rise in cases. Mr Shenton, the Sunday Express’s critic for 11 years, told the London South Employment Tribunal in Croydon that he had posed naked for pictures during a “one-off sex date” in San Francisco in 1999.

“They were taken purely for mine and the photographer’s gratification/personal use and at no time did I think they would be distributed or made public,” Mr Shenton, 51, who is openly gay, told the tribunal.

However, he discovered in 2003 that some of the pictures were published in a magazine called Bulk Male. Ten years later, the Sunday Express received a complaint from a reader after the photos were posted on the magazine’s subscription-only website.

The reader, a “family man” who attached a thumbnail image, claimed to be “shocked” about the images and said that he would not buy the paper again until the critic was replaced.

Mr Shenton said he was “suspicious” about the source of the complaint. “I felt clear, having seen the website and paywall, that this was a malicious complaint. I had my suspicions that it was a former partner of mine because it was such an acrimonious break-up and there have been other incidents where he has acted maliciously towards me,” Mr Shenton told the tribunal.

Mr Shenton called the police to make a harassment complaint but was told this was a civil matter. He asked the site to take down the images. He could not ask Google to remove the images since they were behind a paywall and would not appear under an ordinary search.

Martin Townsend, the Sunday Express editor, told him the pictures were an embarrassment for the publication and its reputation, according to Mr Shenton’s witness statement. The company’s HR director, Julie Fullilove, told him they could “damage the brand”.

But Mr Shenton said they could only have been obtained by someone who paid to gain access to the site. He expected his employers to be sympathetic to a case of “revenge porn” and argued that his sacking was “discriminatory”.

Mr Shenton said: “If these had been heterosexual images, I do not think that Martin would have referred to them as ‘horribly embarrassing’.”

The critic, who disclosed a history of depression, said he felt “suicidal” and seriously considered “ending my life by throwing myself into traffic” since “a central part of my career has been destroyed”.

Mr Shenton said: “I felt that they were telling [me] that my body was embarrassing and it felt humiliating. These photos should not have gone into the public domain but having got there through no fault of mine, there was nothing I could do.

“I was more than slightly outraged at what I considered to be a hypocritical stance. Richard Desmond [who owns the Sunday Express] has made money from commercial pornography media... including “gay publications.”

He also said he had been required to source free theatre tickets for Mr Desmond and had been placed under pressure to alter reviews.

The employment law specialist Arpita Dutt, a partner at BDBF LLP who is representing the critic, said: “The Sunday Express compounded the actions of this malicious complainant by dismissing him.”

Express Newspapers denies the claims and is expected to challenge Mr Shenton’s employment status – he describes himself as a member of staff but was paid a monthly retainer for his weekly columns. The hearing continues.

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