The Blogger, the Defamation Case and the Hefty Legal Bill
There is a fine and risky line walked by football bloggers in exposing the more erratic behaviours of the owners of certain football clubs. Whilst the national press glory in the circus that is the Premier League, unpaid and unsung bloggers dig lower down the pyramid into the financial morass that the English Leagues have become. Discovering, as the pages of this site have demonstrated, some bizarre behaviours, financial and otherwise.
Back in February and March this year I described one such case. Pompey blogger Micah Hall received a letter before action from solicitors Mishcon de Reya on behalf of their clients the Najadi family and Capital Finance Holding Group (Suiss) SA. It alleged a series of defamatory statements had been made against their clients in a blog written about the investors behind the failed Keith Harris bid for Portsmouth Football Club. Pascal Najadi was one of Harris’ named backers, along with the vet Alan Hitchins. The blog had already been removed from the website owned by Fansnetwork and was one of three on the Harris consortium. (The other two, on Hitchins and Harris, remain live.) Despite this, Mishcon were persuing the blogger for apologies, costs and damages.
Given the seemingly convoluted rationale for the alleged defamation it was difficult to see this particular action as anything other than a classic SLAPP ( Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) Suit, designed to stop this particular blogger in his critical tracks. It has to be said that Micah Hall had been a constant pain in the proverbial to the Portpin involvement in Pompey since Mr Chainrai first slapped a debenture on Fratton Park in October 2009. However, there was nothing that was factually incorrect in the blog. Hall stood by what he had written and still does. But defamation law is not straightforward, and to fight such a case requires the taking of certain risks. Hence the success of many such cases, not because what has been written is defamatory but because even when it isn’t it can cost the writer a great deal to prove that it isn’t. It would seem there are law firms who specialise in bringing such cases and who will assure their client that the annoying critic can be silenced without recourse to a court appearance where, of course, the embarrasing allegations, whether true or not, will be aired in public.
In this instance, on legal advice that suggested that the blog could be defended on a number of grounds, not the least of which was that it was ‘fair comment’, Hall decided to stand his ground. He provided a rebuttal of the allegations. This led to a period of legal letter writing between the two sides during which time, such was the strength of Hall’s case, he acquired a defence lawyer prepared to work on a ‘No Win, No Fee’ (NWNF) basis. This after incurring costs in the region of £10,000 for the legal advice thus far. Pompey fans had rallied to contribute to these costs but the pot was now empty.
On 10 April a different court case was decided – out of court – one which gave the Pompey Supporters Trust and their business partners the go-ahead to purchase the club. It is an undoubted fact that the information collected by Hall over three years of financial mal-administration at the club and the connections traced between the various owners of Pompey, which were uncovered by Hall and the group that came to be known as the Pompey Bloggers Collective, contributed a great deal to the succes of the Trust bid for the club. Not all of that information was published but it was all used where it would be most effective.
On the following day Hall received notification that the defamation case against him was to proceed to court.
This of course did not preclude an out of court settlement but it raised the odds against Hall, and Mishcon were still pressing for damages to be paid to their client. Negotiations continued between lawyers. Hall, a senior manager in IT, was forced to put on hold a job offer in Manilla whilst matters were in flux. There was serious danger of being made bankrupt if the case went against him. A married man with four children, he found the whole of his family’s life thrown out of balance. He had already dedicated a year to working on the Trust bid for the club since redundancy in early 2012 and was ready to move on. This was no longer possible. The pressure on his family and professional life was immense.
In June Mishcon informed the court that they no longer represented the Najadis. This meant that, for the court case to proceed, the Najadi family would have to appoint another set of lawyers. They did not. So on 23 July Hall was informed that the court had dismissed the case. The Najadis had two weeks to appeal the desicion. They did not. This made Najadi liable for all court costs. These work out at about £50,000. This includes the 50% of costs success fee payable to the NWNF lawyer plus the originasl £10,000 already spent.
Herein lies the rub of defamation law. If the Najadis don’t pay the court ordered costs then the bill devolves to Mr Hall. The success fee will not be included but it does mean that Hall will have to find about £20,000.
Hall doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for the Najadis paying up. Firstly because on 29 July Hussain Najadi was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur. Secondly because his son, Pascal Najadi is currently in Moscow where he has been negotiating banking business in Kazakhstan. Pascal seems reluctant to leave Russia, saying he feels safe there, despite requests from the Kuala Lumpur police investigating the crime. He did not attend his father’s funeral.
Pompey seem to have had a narrow escape from losing yet another financial backer to the politics of international banking, after the calamities caused by Gaydamak and Antonov. Had the Harris bid been taken seriously and succeeded this could have been a case of third strike and out for the club.
There is no doubt in many Pompey fans’ minds that Hall played a major role in securing ownership of the club for the fans. He has recently been appointed Fan Engagement Manager for the club and has overseen the carrying out of many developments started during the year he took out to work on the bid. Many might say he is lucky to have at least come out with what he describes as a dream job. But the £20,000 will hang over him whilst his lawyers persue Pascal Najadi for payment of the bill for the court action that Najadi initiated.
This point will have not escaped other bloggers on the campaign trail against owners who are less than desirable. Leeds fans have experienced it from ther litigious Mr Bates. Those looking into the tangled webs at Coventry and Birmingham will be well aware that there are risks in what they publish, as are we on this website.
Bloggers tales of pressure from other fans and the club itself, some using tactics which border on defamation in their turn, abound. In Pompey’s case there were fierce online attacks and attempts to besmirch the character of those publishing details that others would rather not have known. Hall chose not to be bullied. Now he is likely to have to pay for that principle. Although the fans of Portsmouth FC may take a hand in that.
Donations to help pay Micah’s court costs are being collected here.
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