Plebgate: Andrew Mitchell, PC Rowland and the Sun – the judgment and some media coverage

30 11 2014

Mitchell at CourtOn Thursday 27 November 2014, Mr Justice Mitting handed down a judgment in which, after careful analysis of the evidence, he found that “at least on 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””.

It is noteworthy that the Judge does not conclude that Mr Mitchell lied or sought to mislead the Court. It appears that he may have concluded that Mr Mitchell had genuinely (but incorrectly) believed that he had not used the word “pleb” but that his recollection was clouded by his anger in the heat of the moment.

The judgment was delivered orally but a full transcript has now been made available on the invaluable Bailii website: Mitchell v NGN [2014] EWHC 4014 (QB).

Mr Mitchell made a statement outside court, thanking his friends and legal team and saying that he was “bitterly disappointed” but that “We now need to bring this matter to a close and to move on with our lives.”  He has not made any public statement accepting the Judge’s conclusions or apologising to PC Toby Rowland.

PC Rowland, whose account of events was substantially accepted by the Judge, emerged outside the court, as the Guardian put it “vindicated and magnanimous“.  He said

“It is with huge regret that what happened at the gates of Downing Street more than two years ago has ended up here.  It should be pointed out that I and my team tried everything possible to stop the need for court action”.

Former PC Richardson, whose evidence the judge accepted in full, went on the Today programme and said that he felt sorry for Mr Mitchell who, he said, should not have lost his job as Chief Whip.

The Sun claimed that the decision was a vindication of the newspaper and its reporters.  Managing Editor Stig Abell said

We’ve always stood by our story and continue to do so. We’re delighted that the judge has ruled that what we reported about evidence on Downing Street and the evening in questions was the truth, and accurate.

There’s been a lot of speculation and comment about Mitchell’s outburst and criticism of our newspaper. This judgment today lays all that to rest. Our article broke the important public interest story and it has been independently and conclusively confirmed today. The Sun can be proud of its journalism.

There was no doubt among commentators that the result of the judgment was both financially and politically disastrous for Mr Mitchell, for example:

However, it appears that Mr Mtichell will stand again at the next election: “friends” have told the BBC that he has “strong support from his local Conservative association”.  According to an exclusive in the Sun, Mr Mitchell is vowing to “do a Profumo” and “help the poor” [£].  The same newspaper reports that  [£] Mr Mitchell is paid £18,000 a day by Investec and so could pay the Plebgate costs in 6 months.

Photographers outside Mr Mitchell’s home were able to photograph his wife walking their dog, leading to a Mail Online headline: “Smile of wife who just lost millions: Andrew Mitchell’s wife keeps beaming out dog walking morning after husband lost fortune because he called someone ‘a pleb’ “

The decision came shortly after the departure of Mr Mitchell’s Islington neighbour Emily Thornberry MP from the Labour front bench over a strained allegation of snobbery.  Both were reminders of the dangers of the political class appearing to be superior to those who vote for them.  As Andrew Anthony suggested in the Guardian that “Class war is back again – and British Politicians are running scared“. Archie Bland had a piece in same paper about the Mitchell trial, “Class war by distant proxy: the Andrew Mitchell trial from inside court 13“.

Finally, and understandably, some commentators treated this as an opportunity to remind readers about the dangers of suing for libel.  In a piece in the Indpendent entitled “Andrew Mitchell ‘Plebgate’ trial: The great British libel casino claims a fresh victim” Andy McSmith reminded readers of the other libel litigants who had paid a high price, from Oscar Wilde to Jeffrey Archer, via Jonathan Aitken.


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30 11 2014
sdbast

Reblogged this on sdbast.

1 12 2014
Plebgate: Andrew Mitchell, PC Rowland and the Sun – Inforrm’s Blog | Vox Political

[…] On Thursday 27 November 2014, Mr Justice Mitting handed down a judgment in which, after careful analysis of the evidence, he found that “at least on 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””, according to Inforrm’s Blog. […]

1 12 2014
Brekfast_Newz

I have yet to see any coverage giving detailed thought either to the true status of Mr Mitchell’s liability for costs, or the effect of the earlier costs decision (Mitchell v. News Group Newspapers [2013] EWCA Civ 1537) on the overall outcome of the cases.

Clearly there are issues of confidentiality and/or privilege in both instances which may mean the facts will never emerge. Also, on the face of it, the combination of professional error and the “robust decision” of the Master in question which limited Mr Mitchell’s recoverability of costs would only “bite” had the claimant won and sought to recover as against The Sun.

However, plainly that is not the whole story. The decision on whether or not to proceed with any action at that post-costs estimate stage must have been, shall we say, robustly debated internally by the claimant and his legal team. It was reported that (at his solicitors’ proposal) the instruction proceeded on a CFA basis thereafter, but the terms on which this deal was thrashed out – including the interaction between the costs of the two claims (claim vs. The Sun and defence vs. Mr Rowland), any contingencies for an adverse result agreed in all the circumstances vs. any forbearance to sue in negligence (with no comment as to whether, even assuming the reverse result, this might have been applicable), and the role of the firm’s insurer or the claimant’s ATE – all these remain inscrutable.

Moreover, and notwithstanding PC Rowland’s comment that “I and my [claimant] team tried everything possible to stop the need for court action”, what seems hard to deny is the considerable effect the earlier decision on costs might have had on the conduct of litigation. I have no reason to doubt PC Rowland’s claim that offers to settle were made on his behalf, although The Sun does not appear to have made any comment. There might have been many points in the build-up to trial – not least when the media war was perceived to be going in Mr Mitchell’s favour, given the widely-reported issues with certain police evidence – where, on a level costs playing field, settlement would have been a likelier outcome.

Or, put another way, the Sun (for its part) might have been ready to entertain settlement on terms more agreeable to the claimant were it not holding the sword of Damocles over him in terms of costs.The Sun, after all, faced a costs bill of comparative peanuts were it lose, so why not fight on? Moreover, any settlement of PC Rowland’s claim seemed unlikely absent any agreement on the other.

This may be speculative but the considerations are all material and, on the balance of probabilities, hard to dismiss altogether. Were I in Mr Mitchell’s position I might have negotiated hard with my own team, and any willing insurers, at the early stage (post-Court of Appeal) to ensure a softer landing whatever the outcome. To fight on two fronts to the bitter end, with ruin as well as reputation on the line, would otherwise seem an absurd and unnecessary gamble.

As a final point: given that £589,555 was the Sun’s budgeted figure to trial floated elsewhere in this blog; given the reported contingency arrangement as regards Mr Mitchell’s own costs; and given the relatively swift justice (in libel terms) that this represents (8 day trial of the single preliminary issue, whereas the estimate was for 12) – where has the ubiquitous £3m figure come from, and how does it break down? Can the shortfall be entirely allocated to PC Rowland’s costs and damages? Such a bill for two libel claims might not normally raise eyebrows, but in these strange circumstances it does not seem to add up.

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