The Court of Appeal gave judgment today in a case which the Mirror is suing a young single mother called Stephanie Ward from which whom it stole a story which the paper then published as an "exclusive" on its front page. The judgment re-instated the Mirror's defence that a judge had struck out, and opens the way for a trial at which the MGN will seek an order that Stephanie Ward will pay the legal costs that it has incurred defending the claim, and any damages that it is ordered to pay.
In 2012, when she was at the height of her fame, Tulisa was accused by the Daily Mirror of being a "homewrecker" in a front page article which it published after it had been contacted by Stephanie Ward who had been the partner of Tulisa's new beau. Stephanie was understandably (although unjustifiably) upset when she read that her Premiership star ex had started dating one of the country's most sought-after women. Stephanie decided to both vent her distress publicly, and take a share of the profit which a national newspaper would earn from splashing her anguish on its front page. So she telephoned The Sun and the Mirror to tell them her story so that they could bid for it. As was inevitable, The Sun outbid the Mirror and having agreed a fee with Stephanie published its front page "exclusive".
That should have been the end of the matter, but despite having not secured her agreement to publish the story nor paid Stephanie any publication fee, the Mirror also ran its own "exclusive" and published a near identical story to that of The Sun. It did so without any prior notification either to Tulisa or her Premiership boyfriend, or any checking on whether the allegations made in the article were true - in blatant contravention of the code of practice by which claims to abide.
Up until that point then this was just another example of routine and cynical amorality on the part of a tabloid newspaper. However what the Mirror did when it was confronted with legal proceedings about that article was entirely new in my 25 years' experience of holding the tabloid press to account when it trashes the human rights of people for money. Even a judge who struck out its defence and who specialises in media law speculated that it might be "unprecedented".
The next chapter of the saga is that Tulisa and her now ex-boyfriend sued The Sun for defamation, and after it had for a period of three years insisted to (inter alia) the Press Complaints Commission that its "homewrecker" allegations against Tulisa and her then partner were true, finally admitted that they were not, and paid substantial damages to both of them. This was however only after their attempts to persuade both a High Court judge and the Court of Appeal that "homewrecker" did not mean "homewrecker" had failed.
Proceedings were also commenced against the Mirror, although Tulisa left her "Prem Star" boyfriend to pursue the peoples' champion Mirror on his own. The Mirror knew that it was staring down the barrel of a gun when it was told by another judge that "homewrecker" meant "homewrecker" - just as The Sun had been told. It is a standard tactic of the tabloid press to publish allegations in their newspapers which plainly mean one thing, only for them to try to persuade a court that they mean something entirely different.
At this point the Mirror did something which even by its own dismal standards was a new low. It began a legal claim against Stephanie, from whom it had stolen the story in the first place, the aim of which was to make her liable for the story published by the Mirror should it be forced to pay damages and costs about its "homewrecker" front page story. This then is a claim brought by a large and powerful media corporation against a single mother concerning confidential information which it stole from that single mother and from which it profited by publishing that confidential information on its front page.
So what lessons do we learn from this? The first is that the Mirror's claim to be a champion of the people is a mere marketing gimmick in order to try and differentiate itself from rivals such as The Sun. The Mirror's editor Lloyd Embley is public school educated and his paper is the embodiment of cynical big business, which is prepared to break the law for profit (as it did with its serial phone hacking), to exploit the vulnerable in the form of a young single mother, and then try to secure its profit margin at the expense of that young single mother rather than take responsibility for its own wrongdoing in publishing information to which it had no right.
The second lesson is that the determination by newspapers such as the Mirror not to be the subject of independent regulation needs to be judged in the context of the Mirror's conduct towards a source from which it had stolen a story. The IPSO Code (which the papers such as the Mirror wrote) does not say anywhere that newspapers which feign compliance with the Code must not steal stories from individuals - such as single mothers. So according to the IPSO Code the Mirror has done nothing wrong. Sadly given the utter failure by IPSO to adequately sanction breaches of its Code (or even sanction them at all) the Mirror would probably not have been deterred from behaving this way even if it had been a breach of the Code.
The third lesson is to anyone who is tempted to contact the Mirror with a story which they wish to sell is simple. Don't do it. Go to another newspaper which will pay you a fee for your story rather than stealing it from you; and one which will be more generous than that which the Mirror would pay (assuming that it actually pays you anything at all).
Jonathan Coad is a partner at Lewis Silkin LLP and acts for claimants and defendants
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