Souness is awarded pounds 750,000 damages over 'dirty rat' libel case

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The Independent Online

Media Correspondent

Graeme Souness, a former player and manager of Liverpool Football Club, yesterday won pounds 750,000 in libel damages from Mirror Group Newspapers, the highest award by a jury against a national newspaper.

Mr Souness sued the People after it ran a front-page interview with his first wife, Danielle, in which she accused him of behaving like a "dirty rat", telling her to "get stuffed" when she asked for money to feed and clothe their children.

Lord Williams QC, representing Mr Souness, had told the jury that Danielle had been used by the People in a "seedy, shoddy conspiracy" to knock the former footballer when he was at a professional low.

The paper's publisher, Mirror Group, paid pounds 20,000 for the original story. With the legal bill for the eight-day trial unofficially estimated at pounds 250,000, the total cost could reach pounds 1,020,000. However, the judge, Mr Justice Morland, who told the jury not to award "extravagant" damages, ordered a stay on pounds 500,000 of the award pending possible appeal.

The packed public gallery and massed ranks of the press, some of whom were forced to scramble for seating space on the steps of the witness box, have been treated to eight days of drama, worthy of any cup tie - the former and current Mrs Sounesses, Danielle and Karen, both bleach blonde and immaculately turned out, fixing stares across a crowded courtroom; and Graeme, the Glaswegian hard man of football, weeping in the witness box, .

It was a case of two halves. In the May 1993 interview, Dani-elle said her ex-husband had ordered her, their sons Fraser and Jordan, and adopted daughter Chantelle, to leave their Surrey home by Christmas 1992. She also claimed that he refused to pay the boys' school fees, and that she was living on handouts from her parents and proceeds from the sale of her jewellery.

George Carman QC, representing Mirror Group, accused Mr Souness of behaving like "the Great Dictator" to Danielle in his urge to exercise power and control over her, and being prepared to let his children suffer as a consequence. He claimed that Mr Souness, who is about to take up a contract as coach with the Turkish club Galata-saray for a reported pounds 300,000, had offered less than pounds 50 per week maintenance for the boys at a time when he had a weekly average income of pounds 15,000.

Lord Williams described the article as a "classic bit of sleaze journalism" and a "100 per cent lie". In fact, he said, in the wake of their marriage split in November 1988, Mr Souness had offered Danielle everything she wanted "on a plate". He had behaved with "phenomenal generosity" by providing her and the children with the pounds 1m home in Surrey. She could have stayed there until their son Jordan, now 10, was 18, if she had been willing to sign a tenancy agreement.

The newspaper had shown "all the courage of a dead chicken and less decency than an elderly skunk" in failing to check the story with Mr Souness and by not giving evidence.

An emotional Mr Souness, said afterwards : "I am delighted that I have been vindicated. It has been an enormous strain both for me and my wife and everybody close to me."

The case provoked comment in the House of Commons. David Ashby, Tory MP for Leicestershire North West, said Mirror Group was responsible for a ''disgraceful libel" and called for a privacy law to "put a stop to this kind of behaviour".

The award is the highest by a jury against a newspaper. The pounds 1m that the Sun paid to Elton John in 1988 over allegations about his private life was an out-of-court settlement.