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Was the White Radio Leeds interview with Massimo Cellino libelous?

March 31, 2014

Was the White Radio Leeds interview1 with Massimo Cellino libelous?


This morning when the Guardian was reporting on the imminent outcome of the Football League’s hearing into Massimo Cellino’s appeal against the decision to prevent him from taking a 75% share in Leeds United (or whatever holding company is currently the owner), called it a “potentially libelous interview”. Since then, it appears that the article has been amended to call it an “inflammatory” interview instead. 2


Calling it libellous in the first place may have also been libellous!


I’m going to skip around a basic description of libel law as, well, there are far better people than me who have explained what it is, and specifically what it’s updates were by the Defamation Act 2013.3


So – what did Cellino say that could be libellous?


Unfortunately due to the nature of libel law – in that repeating a libellous claim can itself be a libellous act – means as a risk-averse lawyer, I will not repeat the claims.


But when he insults David Haigh and GFH Capital themselves – calling them various names as a good latin-blooded football owner would be expected to do – he would not generally be libelling either DH personally or GHF as a company. And I can cite myself on this matter –


It’s the allegations as to dishonesty and untruthfulness that could be more damaging. To allege dishonesty is a serious thing, and something that a bank and a Chief Executive would likely take seriously. Richard Sharpe’s linked-to blog above is a good idea to see what any claimant would have to prove in order to succeed.


If I was GFH or DH, would I consider suing? Probably not. It would be terrible PR, to get an outlet of LUFC fans against the owners in an open way. The vitriol felt towards Ken Bates was incredible – and totally deserved – but it’s a position few people would be happy putting themselves in. They would certainly need an exit strategy, as Bates had, and perhaps as GFH have!


Also to consider is the old maxim – “never sue a man of straw”. You’ll never get the damages you seek (still limited to around £220,000 I believe) and although you may make them bankrupt (which could be your aim); it’s likely the libellous material would have been published thousands of times online and be more popular than ever (see Spycatcher, Lola by the Kinks or anything else reported to be “banned” and it’s subsequent rise in popularity). You would also get hammered in costs in doing so. Which again, may be ok to do if the claimant fancies the fight enough.


One only has to hope that it’s not started in the name of Leeds United as the action against Melvin Levi was. The Club had to foot the bill for that, remember?45 And it could conceivable be started in the name of the Club if DH and GFH were vindictive enough, as it could be argued that the Club’s reputation has been damaged and the undefined “large financial loss” has happened.


Although not getting Cellino’s millions would likely fall in that bracket.


If any of the potentially-libelled parties wanted to start proceedings, I’d certainly love to get those instructions, and a good case could likely be argued on the scant facts that are available, but I’d also be confident if I were to get instructions to defend the claim. There is a lot of wriggle room. Not to mention that the things Cellino said are both opinion and have a very large public interest, especially to the fans of Leeds who are still one of the most-supported teams in the UK.


I’m not even going to get into the area of whether or not it was legal for White Leeds Radio to record a conversation without permission. I’ve always thought it wasn’t a good idea – let alone if it was your intention to publish it and it was achieved by guile. I have to admire the balls on the guy – to ring up Levi and Cellino and not be honest that they are calling with the express intention to publish the conversation. It’s not something that a person bound by the same Code of Conduct as I would be comfortable to do (I hope!).


In conclusion – there isn’t one. The horrible lawyers response – “it depends” would apply here. It would be so difficult to say yes or no and to give an equivocal answer. A few more hours of research would be needed in order to determine a better one. However as said above, both sides would probably have a case.


But it will all settle outside of Court in any case, so you know… whatever.


MOT? Certainly.


About Me: I am a Leeds United and Brighton and Hove Albion fan who is passionate about football, both in the game itself and the way it is run, regulated, and every little thing in between that.


And yes, I can support two clubs. And the answer to the next question is – I hope for a home win for the first game and then for a win for whoever is closer to the play-offs the second.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2014 11:57 am

    A claimant could go for no-win no-fee if they could persuade lawyers that they had a good chance of winning. That way they could avoid the large costs in mounting a libel action.

    • April 1, 2014 12:09 pm

      Problem is – no win – no fee or conditional fee agreements (or CFA’s) are never (or extremely rarely! no win – no fee).

      They usually involve the payment of insurance premiums along the way as a replacement for costs and as a hedged bet to back yourself.

      For a libel action worth a lot of money, many CFA premiums would be unaffordable to most people I would expect.

      Although in practice, should WLR be sued, yes a CFA is what they will end up having to take out with their solicitors.

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