Sean Price was chief constable of Cleveland Police from 2003 until 2012 when he was sacked following a disciplinary finding of gross misconduct relating to lying.
Price is taking legal action over an April 2022 Northern Echo story, in print and online, about the latest appointee in the role.
The article said: “The force has been beset by a series of scandals, including it becoming the first to be officially rated as failing in all areas in 2019.
“Former chief constable Sean Price was sacked for gross misconduct in 2012, officers were under investigation after journalists’ phones were unlawfully monitored, and there have been long-standing claims of racism within the ranks.
“The force has seen a number of chief constables among its ranks since Sean Price was sacked in 2012.”
Cleveland Police, which covers an area in the North of England including Hartlepool, Stockton-on-Tees and Middlesbrough, unlawfully used spying powers to view the phone data of journalists from the Northern Echo, the Mirror and the Press Association in 2012 and 2013. Price has never been implicated in investigations into these actions.
In 2015 a law was passed, following a Press Gazette campaign, which prevents police forces from viewing journalists’ call data without the approval of a judge.
What did Newsquest and ex-Cleveland Police chief constable say in first libel hearing?
Price argued the 2022 Northern Echo article carried the defamatory meaning that “there were strong grounds to suspect” he was involved in both the force’s unlawful monitoring of journalists’ phones and its long-standing racism.
The publisher argued instead that the article meant simply that Price “committed acts of gross misconduct while he was Chief Constable of Cleveland Police, which led to him being sacked in 2012”.
Robert Sterling, representing Price, said at a High Court meaning hearing on 21 November that the article failed to separate the former chief constable “linguistically and grammatically from the references to ‘officers were under investigation’ and to ‘racism within the ranks’.
Jonathan Scherbel-Ball, representing Newsquest Media Group, argued that conversely the “context and general thrust” of the article “were clearly problems with the police force extending over 11 years”.
He suggested “that the reasonable reader would conclude that this was a story about events that went well beyond Mr Price’s dismissal in 2012 and would, therefore, read the words complained of as disjunctive”.
And he argued that the “difference between the use of a comma and a semi-colon is overly analytical – they are simply different ways of breaking up a sentence and the reasonable reader would not see anything consequential in this”.
Susie Alegre, sitting as a deputy judge of the High Court, ruled that the meaning of the words Price has complained about, in the context of the whole article, was that he “was sacked in 2012 as a result of gross misconduct and he was in some way implicated in the unlawful monitoring of phones belonging to journalists and to the long-standing issue of racism within the force”.
She said the way the relevant paragraph of the article was written “does not draw a clear distinction” between Price’s dismissal, the unlawful phone monitoring, and the racism claims.
“All three strands are contained in a single sentence paragraph which is separated from other aspects of the history of the force,” she said in her judgment on meaning, published on Thursday.
“This separation from later events gives the impression that they are somehow connected. That connection is reinforced by the absence of any further explanation for Mr. Price’s dismissal which might have set it apart from the other strands.”
She noted that punctuation “serves as a subtle guide to reading which leads the reader to a natural and ordinary meaning”.
Although the reference to a “series of scandals” besetting the force showed the article was “about a wider set of issues over a longer timeline”, the following sentence noted that there have been a number of other chief constables since Price was sacked and did not mention any particular scandals associated with them.
Alegre concluded that the words were defamatory of Price, which Newsquest did not dispute. The case will now proceed towards a trial where Newsquest will be able to put forward its defence, unless a settlement is reached first.
Price previously sued the publisher of the Mirror for falsely alleging he was “party to” the interception of its journalist Jeremy Armstrong’s phone records.
After Mirror Group Newspapers’ initial application to block the libel claim was dismissed by a court, the publisher settled the case in January 2019 with an apology and “significant damages and his reasonable legal costs”.
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