Sports news and comment in this country has traditionally been robust but a spate of litigation has revealed the particular libel risks of football journalism.
Those risks are increased by the genre’s thirst for sensational and confrontational coverage and the fact the subjects of the coverage are invariably wealthy individuals with plenty of money to throw at litigation.
Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, for example, has sued over a News of the World article headed “It’s your fault – Benitez in new blast at owners”, claiming damages of more than £300,000.
He claims the article meant he disloyally held the club’s owners responsible for damaging the team’s prospects and destabilising the club.
He alleges the coverage was based on a report published in a Spanish paper and he was not given any opportunity to comment. Both the reporter and the NoW’s publisher are being sued.
Also on Merseyside, Everton manager David Moyes recently settled a libel claim against HarperCollins over Wayne Rooney’s autobiography, with the publisher reportedly facing a six-figure costs bill.
In addition to the publisher, he also sued the Manchester United striker and a ghost-writer in relation to claims contained in the book, My Story So Far.
Moyes alleged his reputation was seriously damaged by a claim that he betrayed Rooney’s confidence by giving certain information to a local newspaper following reports that the player had visited prostitutes. The claim was removed from subsequent paperback editions of the book.
In another case, Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill has accepted substantial but undisclosed damages from an online soccer forum that published unfounded allegations that he had ‘tapped up’ Artur Boruc, the goalkeeper at his former club Celtic.
His solicitor told the High Court the allegations meant O’Neill had attempted to induce the player to break his contract and join Villa without the permission of his club, in breach of the rules of Fifa, the Premier League and the FA.
So, it’s clear the lucrative world of professional football continues to produce more than its fair share of libel cases.
And articles about soccer stars’ personal lives are no less problematic, as illustrated by Ashley Cole’s court action over The Sun’s reports on his sexual relationships.
The Chelsea defender is claiming up to £200,000 for infringement of privacy after the paper published a series of articles about his alleged relationships with four women.
Journalists’ jobs are made more difficult by the fact that football reporting in general tends to be gossipy and opinionated, and spotting the stories that will be met with a writ among those that will be accepted as run-of-the-mill, is increasingly hard.
Meanwhile, compared with the complications of sports reporting, you may feel the risk of publishing a story that amounts to contempt of court pales into insignificance.
But the editor and publisher of Belfast’s Sunday World newspaper have discovered that the Attorney-General is quite prepared to back a contempt prosecution if reporting of criminal cases is seriously prejudicial and irresponsible.
The publisher was fined £50,000, and the editor £10,000, as a result of various articles over a number of months about two men due to stand trial on charges of malicious wounding, intimidation and criminal damage.
As a result of the prejudicial coverage, the trial had to be moved to another court. The contempt was aggravated by breach of reporting restrictions – of which the paper had been unaware.
Imposing the fines, Lord Justice Kerr said: “The articles…were not merely grossly contumelious, they placed in great peril the successful prosecution of both defendants on extremely serious charges. The contempt was repeated despite frequent opportunities to discover that the articles were in flagrant breach of court orders…It must therefore rank among the most serious of this type of contempt.”
It has to go down as a bad day – or a bad few months – at the office.
Solicitor Nigel Hanson is a member of Foot Anstey’s media team.
To contact Tony Jaffa or Nigel Hanson telephone 0800 0731 411 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com