The publisher of The Times has apologised to billionaire businessman Mike Ashley and agreed to pay him damages over “untrue” allegations that his phone records were “protected” during a High Court battle.
The former Newcastle United owner launched libel proceedings against Times Newspapers following front page coverage of its investigation into the activities of mobile telephone company Sport Mobile.
The High Court in London was told on Wednesday that the publisher of The Times had issued an apology and retraction over a series of articles in print and online on 17 and 18 July 2020.
Adam Speker QC, representing Ashley, the chief executive of Frasers Group, said the stories were entitled “Stars’ phone records ‘fixed’”, “How co-owner tries to mine Ashley court case” and “Two arrested in ‘phone fixing case’”.
He told the court that Times Newspapers had reported “in the context of an investigation into the activities of the mobile telephone company Sport Mobile” that “its founder had claimed that his company had ‘protected’ Mike Ashley’s phone records” in the context of 2017 High Court proceedings involving Ashley and investment banker Jeffrey Blue.
Speker added: “Following libel proceedings brought by Mr Ashley, the court found that the articles were defamatory of him.
“The court found that in the articles it was alleged that there are grounds to suspect that Sport Mobile helped Mr Ashley to avoid the disclosure in High Court proceedings of potentially relevant text messages and phone records, which Mr Ashley had told the court he could not produce whilst knowing Sport Mobile could in fact have obtained them.”
Speker told the hearing, before Judge Jaron Lewis, that the publisher “confirmed it did not intend to make these claims”, adding: “It made a formal offer of amends that was accepted by Mr Ashley.
“It has published an apology and retraction and it has agreed to pay substantial damages to Mr Ashley as well as his legal costs.”
He added that the publisher “through its apology published in the print edition of The Times and online, has accepted that any allegations of wrongdoing by Mr Ashley in his litigation with Jeffrey Blue are untrue”.
Emily Costello, representing the publisher, told the court: “Times Newspapers Limited did not intend to make the allegations that the court found the articles to bear.
“It accepts that the allegations are untrue and withdraws them and apologises to Mr Ashley.”
Ashley said in a statement issued by Sports Direct and House of Fraser owner Frasers Group: “The false allegations of wrongdoing against me were unrestrainedly published on the front page of The Times but did not contain a shred of truth.
“This was a disgraceful and irresponsible piece of comic book journalism.”
Ashley previously won a regulatory complaint against The Times in 2018 when the Independent Press Standards Organisation ruled in his favour over a comment piece that wrongly said Parliament had found Sports Direct’s main warehouse was run like a “Victorian warehouse” with “gulag” conditions.
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