Store boss learns price of talking tripe

Michael Leapman on a sceptic with a taste for expensive libel
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MIKE ROBERTSON dishes up verbal tripe in the newspapers once a week - and is proud to admit it. Last week, though, he learnt that one of his spiciest columns had cost three West Country papers a five- figure sum in agreed damages.

The payout was made to an indignant Sir Edward Heath, whom Robertson makes a habit of attacking and insulting because of his pro-European views. The offending diatribe, published last month, raised questions about the source of Sir Edward's personal funds.

For the past 25 years, readers of no fewer than 17 West Country papers have been accustomed to a weekly outpouring of anti-European and anti- bureaucratic sentiment that Mr Robertson has produced under the pseudonym "Tripehound".

These columns are unusual: they usually take the form of a single stream- of-consciousness paragraph, dotted with capital letters for emphasis - and they are advertisements. They appear, alongside special offers on toasters, trousers and tiling, in the regular ads inserted by Trago Mills, the chain of stores that Mr Robertson founded in Cornwall in the mid-Sixties, now run by his son, Bruce.

They began as a campaign against local authorities which were being difficult about planning permission for his out-of-town stores near Liskeard in Cornwall and Newton Abbot in Devon. "I've had 31 public inquiries," he boasts from the hotel he now owns in Co Kerry, Ireland, where he moved after retiring nine years ago. At the height of one dispute he erected statues lampooning councillors outside his head office.

Before long, what he calls his weekly "leader" broadened from a simple denunciation of officialdom to embrace a full right-wing agenda. "For the last two years I've concentrated entirely on Europe," he says. "I'm bitterly opposed to it. I spent six years in uniform and a lot of my friends didn't come back." Though he adds: "I have many good German and French friends - but they aren't people I'd want to see running my country."

He shows some remorse at having involved the papers in a heavy libel payout; but he does not accept blame. All three papers in which the ads appeared are owned by Westcountry Publications, a subsidiary of Northcliffe Newspapers.

"I'm sorry I dropped them in it but we pay the group hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in advertising and part of that, in my view, is that they should be my safety net and vet what I say, because I sail fairly close to the wind at times."

In fact, 14 of the 17 papers did spot the libel and excised it. The three that let it run are the group's flagship Western Morning News and Evening Herald in Plymouth, and the Express and Echo in Exeter. As well as damages, they published an apology to Sir Edward for the "very serious and untrue statements" made about him, which "should not have been published". The former prime minister has yet to take any action against Trago Mills.

Bruce Robertson agrees with his father. "The newspaper group has a highly capable and large legal department. The onus is on them." His father's view was held by an increasing number of people, "although Mike's particular expression of it may have been too extreme".

The idea for that particular column came from one of the many letters Mr Robertson receives from like-minded readers. There is a plan to publish a selection of his columns in book form.

Why "Tripehound"? He explains: "Somebody wrote to one of the newspapers asking: `Do we have to suffer this tripe week after week?'

"The weekly leader is my weekly tripe. I'll continue to write them as long as I have breath in my body. If political comment is banned, goodbye free speech and a free press."