Mail on Sunday publisher Associated Newspapers has apologised at the High Court and agreed to pay substantial libel damages to a lawyer who said a 2016 story about her was a “devastating attack” on her professional reputation.
Sasha Wass QC said she was left with no option but to pursue the matter through the courts even after the Independent Press Standards Organisation ruled in her favour, as the article remained online and the publisher printed only the regulator’s adjudication, with no apology.
The article by journalist David Rose was published in the Mail on Sunday on 9 October 2016 under the headline: “Revealed: How top QC ‘buried evidence of Met bribes to put innocent man in jail’.” It appeared in a near identical form on Mail Online.
Wass said the article relied on “wild and disgraceful” accusations made about her in court during confiscation proceedings concerning Bhadresh Gohil, a lawyer who had been convicted for money laundering offences.
The article alleged that Wass had attempted to bury damning evidence that police officers responsible for investigating Gohli had taken bribes; that she had backed the bringing of baseless further criminal charges against Gohil for perverting the course of justice, when in fact she knew he was an “innocent whistleblower”; that she had lied to the Court of Appeal, and that she knew evidence had been tampered with before being placed before the court.
The article claimed these allegations meant Wass was “facing professional ruin”.
Adrienne Page QC, leading counsel for Wass, today told Mr Justice Nicklin at the High Court that all the allegations were “entirely untrue”.
Alison Soens, on behalf of Associated Newspapers, told the judge that the publisher “withdraws these false allegations and apologises to Ms Wass”.
A joint statement read in court today said: “In fact, at all times before, during and since the events which were the subject matter of the article, Ms Wass acted honestly, entirely professionally and in accordance with both her knowledge and instructions.
“She complied fully with her duties to the court; she has not in any way lied or deliberately misled any court and there is no basis whatsoever for questioning her integrity.”
The Mail on Sunday and Mail Online have agreed to publish a “full and prominent” apology , and the court will later determine how much the publisher owes Wass in damages. Associated Newspapers has also agreed to pay her legal costs.
The online article was removed in October last year when Wass instructed solicitors Carter-Ruck and barristers Page and Jacob Dean of 5RB. She did so after being unsatisfied with the results of the IPSO ruling, published in August last year.
The parties’ joint statement added: “Naturally, the publication of these extremely serious, false and defamatory allegations over such a prolonged period has caused enormous distress to Ms Wass, as well as very considerable professional concern and embarrassment given that the allegations went to the very heart of her professional reputation.
“That distress was exacerbated by the defendant’s unreasonable resistance to her IPSO complaint.”
In a statement released today through solicitors Carter-Ruck, Wass said the “distressing saga” began two days before the article was published, when she was contacted by Rose and she answered his questions, hoping it would “enable him to write an accurate and balanced piece”.
She said: “The Mail on Sunday distorted the information I had provided and falsely suggested in its article that I had made an admission to Mr Rose of wrongdoing.
“The article also failed to make clear that I did not – and would never – knowingly mislead the court. Prosecuting counsel are not rogue agents and act only on CPS instructions based on the evidence provided to them.
“The article contained a catalogue of factual inaccuracies, which could and should have been avoided by reference to readily available public material accessible by any investigative journalist.”
Wass’s solicitors sent a legal complaint to the Mail on Sunday days after publication directing it to witness statements and documents which had been aired in earlier court proceedings and contradicted the article.
They demanded the article be removed from Mail Online and sought a correction but, after the publisher failed to comply, Wass said she was compelled to report the matter to IPSO.
But she was disappointed by the press regulator’s powers, saying: “The IPSO process was slow and the result hollow.
“Although the Mail on Sunday was forced to print the results of the adjudication, IPSO informed me that they had no power to require the Mail on Sunday to pay damages, reimburse my legal costs, apologise or prevent continued publication of the original article on the internet.
“By taking the deliberate decision to leave the article online, Associated Newspapers made a mockery of the entire IPSO remedy.
“I was left with no option but to pursue the matter though the courts in order to obtain proper vindication for this devastating attack on my professional standing and reputation, to ensure the removal of the article from Mail Online and to seek suitable damages and reimbursement of my legal costs.”
In response to Wass’s criticisms of IPSO, a spokesperson for the regulator said: “We investigated this complaint robustly and thoroughly according to our procedures.
“IPSO’s Complaints Committee upheld the complaint and ordered the Mail on Sunday to publish a critical adjudication, the most serious sanction available to it, to address the ‘significantly inaccurate information’.
“This was ordered to be published further forward than the original article in print and on the newspaper’s homepage.
“The Committee also ordered that the full adjudication should be published under the online article’s headline if it remained online without the identified misleading statements being removed.
“IPSO’s complaints process does not deal with legal matters or offer financial compensation or damages to complainants as a remedy.
“We do however offer a low cost arbitration scheme for people who wish to make legal claims against participating members (including the Mail on Sunday) which offers damages of up to £60,000.”