Those amongst us that occasionally doubt the power the most vocal of football bloggers seldom pause to consider the lengths that some people go to in order to prevent them having their say. This is a story that will ring bells in a number of clubs around the country. Fans of Leeds United, Birmingham City, Liverpool and Doncaster Rovers have all experienced some or all of the pressures we have felt at Pompey. In the last few weeks, however, events on the South Coast have begun to move in a different and troubling direction. Not only have abuse and spurious counter-arguments posted via social networking sites and by telephone been reported, but now threats of legal action have also been brought into play.
Yesterday (26th February) the Portsmouth Evening News carried a small News item:
INTERNET fan site fansnetwork.co.uk is being taken to court over a blog it published last week by Pompey fan Mike Hall.
Lawyers acting for investment banker Pascal Najadi, part of the Harris consortium, say defamation action will take place as no apology has been issued by the website, though the blog has been removed.
Fansnetwork.co.uk declined to comment.
Micah Hall has been a strong voice of criticism regarding the calamitous ownership of Pompey since Balram Chainrai and Levi Kushnir became involved in October 2009. He has been posting on Fans Network for some considerable time and has some highly influential readers, including the Football Authorities and National Journalists. His investigations into the notoriously evasive Ali al Faraj disclosed the network of businesses and nebulous partnerships behind the façade. His obsessive questioning of those controlling PFC has brought down upon him all kinds of abuse from fans and club alike.
The Pompey Supporters Trust versus Portpin struggle for control of the club has been well documented on Two Hundred Percent . In the background the behaviour of the PR agencies for both Portpin and the Keith Harris bid has led to fans engaging in many a game of ‘hunt the sock-puppet‘ on social networking sites for the last few months. Attempts to belittle or attack the veracity of the work of bloggers having failed via this route, the battle now seems to be stepping into the legal arena. Keith Harris, the football agent specialising in selling clubs to interesting owners such as Birmingham’s Carsen Yeung and Pompey’s CSI, made a last-ditch bid to gazump the Supporters Trust bid two weeks ago. Very swiftly the Football League moved to say they would consider no other bid than that of the Trust. Unabashed, Harris put a revised bid into the public domain and stepped up the PR campaign. Such was his insistence that he was the better custodian for the club than the fans that bloggers were driven to investigate his claims for themselves. Fansnetwork still carries the blog on Harris and vet-financier Hitchins. The third in the series, on financier Pascal Najadi, is missing.
One interesting aspect of this legal action is that it is aimed at the website carrying the blog rather than the author. Fansnetwork provides messageboard and blogging space for fans of a number of clubs – each having its own editor. But neither the editor of the Pompey site, Colin Farmery, nor the author, Micah Hall, have been served with any notification of what the problems with that particular blog might have been. Instead, the target seems to be the publishers. On receiving their first letter from specialist libel lawyers Mishcon de Reya (whose prior clients have ranged from Princess Diana to Chris Huhne via Heather Mills), Fansnetwork removed the offending blog. Mishcon, who might well be considered a surprisingly large hammer to crack an extremely small nut, wanted a published apology in a format of their client’s own devising. Fansnetwork, to date, have not complied. After all, to do so would be to admit liability. Mishcon therefore followed up with a second letter claiming damages for defamation. David Bick, Keith Harris’ PR agent issued a press release on the matter. Hence the statement in the News. Now, as far as I am aware neither letter is a statement of claim, a summons or a writ. So these may be standard precursors to legal action, but are not initiating it. They are directed at people who cannot rebut the claims of defamation, as they do not have access to the resources used by the author. However, the author cannot discuss the blog as it is subject to this action. In this way it prevents those that could rebut the allegations of defammation from doing so.
The obvious conclusion that many have already reached from this set of circumstances is that this resembles a classic ‘SLAPP’ suit. ‘SLAPP’ stands for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation”. SLAPPs are legal actions (usually defamation actions) launched for the primary purpose of shutting down criticism, and without a strong cause of action. The plaintiff’s goal in a SLAPP is not to win the lawsuit, but is rather to silence a critic by instilling fear of large legal costs and the spectre of large damage awards. Despite their right to free speech, critics may be frightened into silence e.g., taking down websites or comments made online – if they are threatened with a defamation-based SLAPP. Fansnetwork are a small organisation with little money. A lawsuit such as that threatened might easily put them out of business. Legal advice suggests that rebuttal is the best defence against defamation, particularly if it can be defined as ‘honest comment‘ based on ‘reasonably accurate’ facts. This has been prevented.
However, the important focus, which is being lost in this maze, is whether the author had the right to say what he did. It is clear, from the first two blogs in the series, that the author is of the opinion that the Harris bid is not one with the same transparent and solid foundations of the Pompey Supporters Trust bid. Given that the Trust bid is backed by the Football League, the Portsmouth City Council, the administrators PKF and the club’s creditors, this is a reasonable stance to take. Harris clearly doesn’t have the backing of the Football League, thrice nay should be enough clarity for anyone. That Micah Hall has a clear bias in favour of the Pompey Trust is a given. However, you cannot sue an author for representing a particular point of view to you, no matter how much you may disagree with his opinion.
There are already plenty of people for whom the actions of the last couple of days has resembled little more than a case of legal bullying in order to suppress an inconvenient freedom of expression. The letters sent to Fansnetwork may easily be interpreted as having the intention of being an attempt to frighten an innocent bystander in this fight for Pompey enough to stop the expression of opinion by those who object to their attempt to preempt the Trust takeover. If this is the case, you have to ask just what drives businessmen to such lengths of intimidation and suppression of opinion when all that is at stake is the purchase of a football club? These tactics are usually the province of those trying to shut down political dissent or to silence whistle-blowers in multi-million pound organisations. What on earth is the issue with a soon-to-be-league-2 club whose assets are worth less than £2.5m? Needless to say, with Pompey being Pompey, this threat of legal action has brought about a renewed level of interest in the subject matter of the blogs and a determined closing of the ranks against those who would threaten one of their own. In this case the suppression of the right to express an opinion has led to a hardening of support for the Trust. The wider implications for football writers, though, are matters of serious concern for anyone interested in greater transparency in the matter of football governance or, we might well argue, for notions of free speech in any sense.
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