In some ways, you almost have to hand it to Ken Bates. He is so obstinate in his behaviour, so apparently appalled by the concept of acting in a way that is half-way reasonable, that it almost appears that his self-appointed role in life is to act in a way that nobody with any scruples could even try to defend. His recent court case against former Leeds United director Melvyn Levi came to its conclusion at the end of last week and, for once, Bates was in the losing corner. Levi had sued Bates for libel for a series of articles in Leeds United match day programmes at the end of 2006 and the start of 2007.
In this series of articles, Bates called Levi a “shyster” and accused him of having blackmailed the club. He also printed Levi’s home address and telephone number, in what the judge at the case called “in effect an invitation to Leeds fans to pester Mr Levi”. Bates defended the accusation on the basis that these statements were “fair comment”. He didn’t turn up to the trial and the judge didn’t agree with him, awarding £50,000 damages in favour of Levi and, more troublingly for Bates, £1,5m in legal costs against the Leeds chairman. Ken Bates is a man that has got used to getting his own way over the years, but this time it rather feels as if he has been dealt a stinging rebuke.
The judge in the case, Sir Charles Gray, was pretty straightforward in his assessment of the case. In summary, he concluded that the damages award was so high because of the following:
- “the gravity of the libels: the allegation of blackmail is particularly serious”
- “the fact that the libels were repeated on several occasions over a period of ten months”
- “the fact that Mr Bates sought unsuccessfully to justify his statements about Mr Levi”
- “perhaps most important of all, the obvious distress and injury to Mr Levi’s feelings caused by the libels”
These are serious allegations, but it is also worth reflecting upon what this means about what was going on at Leeds United. Levi was a part of the “Yorkshire Consortium”, which bought into the club in 2005, before selling a majority shareholding to Bates in 2006. The relationship between the pair of them too a turn for the worse after a note confirming Levi’s concerns that a “call option” (which would have given Bates the right to buy the remainder of the shares in the club had lapsed. The letter was leaked by David Richmond, a Leeds United director at the time and the son of Geoffrey Richmond, the former Bradford City chairman.
The tone of the articles was nasty, as was the language used by Bates. He claimed that his use of the word “shyster” to describe Levi (who is of the Jewish faith) was not racially motivated, in which case the best that one can respond is by saying that anyone that uses it towards a Jew is either a racist or uniquely unaware of the connotations which it carries. This, however, is arguing over semantics. The overall picture painted by the summary of the trial is one of a man that is prepared to try and ruin and opponent’s career through a mixture of libellous words and giving the impression of wishing to stir the worst aspects of the Leeds support into making personal attacks against Mr Levi. Simon Myerson QC, for the prosecution, had this much to say on Bates’s behaviour:
Mr Bates’s conduct and his conduct of the case justify an award of aggravated damages towards the top of the bracket. The use of the programme to pressure Mr Levi, the attribution to him of the failure of the rights issue, the publication of his name and address and the use of Mr Levi as a scapegoat are all matters which should sound in damages. Mr Bates has not proved the truth of any of his factual allegations. He has not only failed to prove the facts he relies upon, he has consistently stated them in a way which was untrue as at the time of publication.
There has been talk that Leeds United AFC themselves, as the publishers of the articles in question, would end up having to foot the bill for Bates’ indiscretions. Mr Levi remains a Leeds United supporter but there is a case for saying that the club will end up footing the bill for their chairman’s antics and if the club does end up paying, it will be those hard done by supporters that end up footing the bill. What is more surprising is the fact that no-one seems to have advised Bates to settle out of court – unless, of course, he received such advice and refused to pay any attention. One thing is for certain, though. The articles written by Ken Bates that have landed him in so much hot water are his words, and not those of his football club.