Williams wins big libel damages over reports he is gay

He has joked about being an "absolute bender" and his latest album includes the raunchy track "Your Gay Friend", but yesterday Robbie Williams won a substantial libel payout over claims that he lied about his sexuality by pretending not to be gay.

A newspaper and two magazines were forced to make a public apology as part of the settlement at the High Court in London after wrongly alleging that Mr Williams had engaged in gay sex acts with strangers and then lied about his homosexuality.

The singer-songwriter did not appear in court, but his counsel, Tom Shields QC, told Mr Justice Eady: "Mr Williams is not, and never has been, homosexual."

The case raises the question of whether Mr Williams was more concerned about the allegation he was gay, or the implication that he lied to cover up his sexuality and was a hypocrite. He also risks alienating members of the gay community, who took a long time to forgive the former Neighbours star Jason Donovan when he successfully sued The Face magazine in 1992 over claims he was gay.

The People and two titles belonging to Richard Desmond's Northern & Shell - Star and Hot Stars magazines - made the false claims around the time of the publication of his book Feel in September 2004. Billed as an autobiography, the book was in fact written, with Williams's co-operation, by Chris Heath who lived alongside the singer from 2002 to 2004.

Shortly before Feel was published, The People splashed with a front-page story headlined: "Robbie's secret gay lover". It suggested that Mr Williams was about to deceive the public by pretending he had sexual relations with only women, when he had engaged in casual and sordid gay encounters with strangers.

The newspaper claimed that Mr Williams enticed a man into a lavatory cubicle at the Hacienda night club in Manchester where they performed a sex act on each other. It also claimed that Mr Williams asked him to engage in a further sex act.

It went on to allege that a year later Mr Williams tried to persuade the same man and the man's friend to engage in similar acts at another Manchester club. It alleged that after they refused, Mr Williams had a sexual encounter with a stranger in the street.

None of the allegations were true, said Mr Shields, adding: "Accordingly, the book Feel did not lie about his sexuality."

Mr Shields said the suggestion in Star and Hot Stars that Mr Williams had discussed his relationships with women in Feel while keeping his gay encounters secret, was also untrue.

Mark Stephens, a media law expert, said that bringing a libel case to prove someone was not gay was a dangerous strategy. "It always rebounds on them to their disadvantage. Most right-thinking people don't think the suggestion that people are gay is defamatory," Mr Stephens said.

He added that it was a "common ploy" to counter allegations of homosexuality on some other ground, for example the suggestion that someone was a liar.

"Where you want to complain about something that is not actually defamatory, like an allegation of being gay, they may go for the suggestion you would be thought to be a liar," he said.

Mr Williams has joked that he is gay on several occasions, telling the audience at a Paris concert that he was in a "steady sexual relationship" with his married song-writing partner Guy Chambers and announcing on Top of the Pops: "Tomorrow I will be coming out as a homosexual."

Tris Reid-Smith, editor of The Pink Paper said: "I don't know whether he does it for publicity or because he thinks it's funny. It's a bit rich then to turn around when someone else says you're gay and get damages out of them."

He added: "It took Jason Donovan a long time to be forgiven. If people think he [Mr Williams] thinks the concept of being gay is offensive, people will be quite upset about that. The idea that he's obsessed with his sexuality to the point that he's prepare to sue over it, means he's a bit out of touch with reality. If he finds being thought a liar or promiscuous offensive, that's a different matter."