A Premiership footballer granted a gagging order to prevent details emerging of an alleged affair with reality TV star Imogen Thomas suspected he was being ‘set up’by he Sun.
The revelation came to light today as a High Court judge explained why he made an order banning journalists from reporting the identity of the married footballer.
Justice Eady issued a written account of his reasons for making the order after listening to arguments from lawyers representing the footballer, former Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas, and The Sun newspaper at a private hearing in London.
Thomas, 28, was at the High Court hearing in London and afterwards complained about being unfairly “gagged”, after her joint bid with The Sun to overturn the injunction failed.
The judge, who issued the injunction temporarily banning reporting last month after a private hearing, said the footballer was married with a family and the court had to consider his privacy rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
He said the footballer was likely to obtain a permanent injunction if the case went to trial and the “information” was such that he was entitled to a “reasonable expectation of privacy”.
Mr Justice Eady said in such cases courts had to balance competing rights – laid down in the European human rights convention – to privacy and freedom of expression.
The judge said he made the injunction against News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, and against Thomas in order to restrain publication of the identity of the footballer and further accounts of the relationship.
The judge said lawyers became involved after a story appeared in The Sun on April 14 giving an account of a sexual relationship Thomas had with the footballer, who was not named in the story.
He said the account was attributed to her “pals” and probably written with her consent.
Justice Eady said lawyers for the footballer began legal proceedings to “restrain publication”, and applied for a temporary injunction after learning that Thomas had engaged the services of publicist Max Clifford.
The footballer made a statement saying he met Thomas last September and on two further occasions in November and December, said the judge .
Thomas did not make a statement but, according to her “published account”, the relationship continued for about six months and “would thus have involved far more frequent meetings”, the judge added.
“The [footballer’s] witness statement was to the effect that Ms Thomas had made contact with him by various text messages in March, which led him to conclude that she was at that stage thinking of selling her story, such as it was, said Justice Eady.
“She told him by this means that she wanted, or ‘needed’, a payment from him of £50,000.
“It was against this background that he agreed (he says with some reluctance) to meet her in a hotel where he was staying in early April of this year to discuss her demands.
“Although he had no wish to meet, he eventually agreed because he was concerned that she would go to the newspapers if he refused.
“On that occasion, which was according to his evidence only the fourth time they had met, they were together for no more that 30 minutes.
“She asked him to provide her with a signed football shirt, which he did, but he told her he was not prepared to pay her sum of £50 000.
“The next development was that she asked to see him again, in a different hotel, a few days later (where he was also staying). He agreed with reluctance and on this occasion, as she had requested, provided her with some football tickets.”
The judge said it now seemed that the footballer “may well have been set up” so that photographs could be taken of Ms Thomas going to hotels.
He said the footballer had started to “smell a rat”.
“On April 12 the [footballer[ sent Ms Thomas a message to say that he did not want any further contact with her,” said the judge.
“Then, in something of a quandary, he thought better of it and sent her a further message the following day.
“This was to convey that he might be willing to pay her some money after all.
“By this time, however, she made it clear that she was looking for £100,000.
“She later texted him to say there was a journalist outside her house.
“The evidence before the court at that point, therefore, appeared to strongly suggest that the [footballer] was being blackmailed (although that is not how he put it himself).
“I hasten to add, as is obvious, that I cannot come to any final conclusion about it at this stage.”
On 13 April Thomas told the footballer that The Sun was thinking of publishing a story to the effect that they had an affair for six months – with photographs of her at or near hotels.
“It seems … that The Sun was ready to take advantage of these prearranged meetings in order to be able to put forward the claim that it was The Sun which had found him ‘romping with a busty Big Brother babe’,” added the judge.
“This is no doubt to give the impression, which Ms Thomas herself may have fostered, that a sexual liaison between them was still continuing … in April.”
The judge added: “It seemed to me that the [footballer] was fully entitled to the protection of anonymity.”
He said courts had to balance competing rights laid down in European law and the judicial function was “well established”.
“Despite this long history, it has for several years been repeatedly claimed in media reports that courts are ‘introducing a law of privacy by the back door’,” said the judge.
“Yet the principles have long been open to scrutiny. They are readily apparent from the terms of the Human Rights Act, and indeed from the content of the European Convention itself.”
David Price, for Thomas, told the court that his client denied “causing the publication” in The Sun or asking the footballer for money.
Outside courThomas said, in a statement: “I’ve read the judgment and am stunned by how I’m portrayed. Yet again, my name and my reputation are being trashed while the man I had a relationship with is able to hide.
“What’s more, I can’t even defend myself because I’ve been gagged. Where’s the fairness in this? What about my reputation? If this is the way privacy injunctions are supposed to work, then there’s something seriously wrong with the law.”