Sorrell declares cease-fire…for now

For a man who had just won what he referred to as “top-end damages” in a high-profile libel case, Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, looked remarkably glum as he stepped away from Court 13 this week.

For a man who had just won what he referred to as "top-end damages" in a high-profile libel case, Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, looked remarkably glum as he stepped away from Court 13 this week.

His antagonists business associates Marco Benatti and Marco Tinelli, by contrast, appeared relaxed and cheerful. This despite the fact they had lost ?150,000 in damages (?30,000 of them to Sir Martin?s co-plaintiff Daniela Weber), had made a ?voluntary? contribution of ?50,000 to the other side?s costs and faced a bill of up to ?1m in legal fees themselves.

So who really won and if, as it appears, it was a Pyrrhic victory for Sorrell, was the case really worth pursuing in the first place? Libel, as any experienced editor will tell you, is a lottery once it gets as far as court. The fact that evidence in libel hearings is based upon an assessment of the ?balance of probabilities? rather than the more rigorous ?beyond reasonable doubt? principle applied to criminal justice makes the hurdle of proof and conviction lower, a factor attractive to any plaintiff. The reality is that all sorts of fairly low-grade allegations can be introduced and the mud often ends up sticking to everyone.

Sorrell?s team may have thought they were cleverly restricting the potential for such damage by joining the libel action to invasion of privacy issues. As a consequence, some of the sessions had to be heard in camera, away from the media; and trial by jury ? another high-risk factor in the eventual outcome ? was eliminated.

More questions than answers

In the event, the trial left open many more questions than it answered. While it?s an exaggeration to say, as other side claims, that Sorrell "fled the battlefield" after unexpectedly aborting the action this week, an alternative military simile does come to mind. The trial was like a First World War offensive in which huge energy and resources were deployed to win almost no ground.

After all, the payout was identical or almost identical to the money paid into court a month ago. Nor have Benatti and Tinelli had to admit personal liability for the scurrilous blogs and ?obscene? image; surely one of the key reasons, from Sorrell?s personal point of view, for going to trial in the first place. In the meantime, huge costs have been racked up (admittedly on both sides) making the lawyers, as so often, the only obvious winners.

Even more curiously, because the trial was called off Benatti and Tinelli were never made to sweat in the witness box. Merciless cross-examination might reasonably have been expected to expose some of the many flaws in their defence. After all, they had already been forced to admit that the offending computer to which the libels had been traced (appropriately named Darkstar) was registered to Tinelli and operated from his offices at FullSix. What seems to have been missing was the clinching piece of forensic evidence linking it to Tinelli?s (or Benatti?s) personal usage.

Even had this existed, there would still be uncomfortable anomalies to be considered. The so-called "Donmartino" blogs showed an idiomatic conversancy with English which neither Benatti nor Tinelli possess. Who, if we go along with the WPP camp?s inference, was helping them out?

Interestingly, the defence tried to seize upon this point by suggesting ? disingenuously ? that Mainardo de Nardis (quite independently from the defendants, of course) could have had a hand in the blogs. At the time, de Nardis was locked in his own acrimonious battle with WPP over gardening leave. The former global head of WPP media-buying operation Mediaedgecia was attempting to join rival company Aegis and finding Sorrell very uncooperative about the terms of his release. So motive enough maybe, and certainly de Nardis has that complete mastery of English the two defendants lack. But just how he might have snuck anonymously into the FullSix office to use Darkstar, Mr Andrew Caldecott for the defence did not go on to speculate.

The ghost in the machine

So we are left with the rather unsatisfactory image of a ghost in the machine, a "malign influence", presumably from Mars, that somehow took control of Darkstar and disseminated all those hurtful things about the "mad dwarf" and the "nympho schizo".

But the ending may not be as inconclusive as it seems. WPP reckons it has amassed some invaluable evidence as a result of the libel trial which will strengthen its hand in three forthcoming actions over unfair dismissal it is contesting with Benatti. The battlefield may have been vacated, but the war is far from over.

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