Mitchell v NGN Limited  EWHC 4014 (QB) (27 November 2014)
November 2014 saw the conclusion of the most high-profile libel trial of the year before Mr. Justice Mitting: former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell, represented by libel lawyers Atkins Thomson, suffered a crushing loss. It is believed to be only the second time in sixty years that The Sun newspaper has won a libel action at trial.
As is now well known, the case arose from a brief and purportedly vicious exchange of words between Andrew Mitchell and PC Toby Rowland at the gates of Downing Street. The incident itself lasted under a minute.
The joint trial comprised two claims. The first, brought by Mitchell, was against The Sun for a front-page news story published two days after the incident; headlined “Cabinet Minister: Police are Plebs.” It alleged that Mitchell launched an offensive and arrogant attack on Downing Street police officers after their refusal to allow him to cycle through the main vehicle gates, culminating in him calling Rowland a “f***ing pleb”. He had since repeatedly denied saying any such thing and brought the libel action against the tabloid newspaper for reporting the use of the words attributed to him by Rowland. The second claim, brought against the MP was for the subsequent statements and articles falsely suggesting fabrication and lying on behalf of Rowland.
Rowland himself had no dealings with The Sun; however, his duty log of the incident was passed on to the newspaper. Serious questions were raised about this police log being evidently leaked to the media, and whether this rendered the former Chief Whip the victim of a grave injustice.
Ultimately, for the judge, the trial rested on establishing the truth of precisely what was said during the elusive 59-syllable exchange. For the purpose of determining this, all relevant evidence was thoroughly scrutinized, including Rowland’s police log, witness statements, and painstaking expert analysis and reconstruction of the recorded CCTV footage. Both the public and those more intimately involved held their collective breath as the outcome of this protracted trial neared; the final ruling delivered by Mitting found against Mitchell.
The judge told the court: “For the reasons given, I’m satisfied, at least on the balance of probabilities, that Mr. Mitchell did speak the words alleged or something so close to them as to amount to the same, including the politically toxic word ‘pleb’.” Mitting described Rowland as a “rather old-fashioned police officer” who was “well suited to his job” and he, therefore, believed him. He said that Rowland “is not the sort of man who had the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment what a senior cabinet minister had said to him.”
Mitting described Mitchell’s behaviour as “childish” and found his version of events to be inconsistent with the CCTV footage from the evening in question. He said of Mitchell, “I am satisfied that he did lose his temper”, adding that the MP’s admission that he was “ill-tempered,” but did not lose his temper, was an easily-dismissible quibble.
In summary, it can be deduced that the ruling found against Mitchell as a result of four major findings: the disbelief in the ability of Rowland to create such a far-fetched account of events, Mitchell’s delivery of his version of events containing gaps and inconsistencies, Mitchell’s evident loss of temper and the decision that Mitchell did most likely use the word ‘pleb’ in the short encounter, based on the balance of probabilities.
Interestingly, this case has direct parallels with the previous action won some 20 years ago by The Sun at trial, namely that of Gillian Taylforth v Sun Newspaper. Until the ‘plebgate’ trial, this is believed to be the only previous libel action ever won by The Sun at trial. In that case, The Sun issued third party proceedings against the police officer who saw the now infamous incident in the Range Rover. The newspaper’s credibility was not on trial and it was a straight choice for the jury in that case as to whether they believed the police officer or the actress.
It is well known that libel trials have little room for compromise – it is win or lose; Mitting’s ruling has certainly left both Rowland and The Sun triumphantly vindicated, whilst Mitchell’s courtroom defeat has left him battered and humiliated across the political landscape and facing a huge bill of costs.
Andrew Mitchell was represented by James Price QC (instructed by Atkins Thomson Solicitors).
News Group Newspapers Limited was represented by Gavin Millar QC (instructed by Simons, Muirhead and Burton).
Toby Rowland was represented by Desmond Browne QC (instructed by Slater & Gordon).