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Levy & McRae, the legal firm which represented Elish Angiolini, the Lord Advocate - Scotland’s most senior law officer - last month took The Drum to the Press Complaints Commission and lost.
The online article at the root of the dispute, which we publish on the following pages in full in addition to the PCC adjudication, was a report on a failed Freedom of Information request. Last year the Lord Advocate threatened to sue our sister magazine The Firm for reporting complaints from the family of Hollie Greig, a young Down’s Syndrome child and victim of an alleged paedophile ring.
They claimed they were let down by the Procurator Fiscal Service which, in their view, did not handle the prosecution process properly.
The Drum lodged a Freedom of Information request to find out who paid the bill for the Lord Advocate’s action against The Firm, and also for another letter sent out by Levy & McRae in the name of the Lord Advocate, which appeared to threaten an English website with libel action for naming a Sheriff at the centre of the allegations.
Was it the Lord Advocate herself – in which case why, as the head of the prosecution service, was she writing on behalf of an individual who might be subject to criminal investigation? Or was it the Scottish Government, in which case why – when the chilling effects on the media of libel proceedings have prompted reform at Westminster – are public funds being used this way North of the Border?
But despite all the technicalities of this debate the fact remains that a young girl, who because of her learning difficulties is particularly vulnerable, has been badly let down. Recently she was awarded £13,500 worth of compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, despite the fact no prosecutions have been made.
So did the Lord Advocate spend more defending her reputation than Hollie Greig has received for being raped? The public has the right to know. After all they might have footed the bill.
(The little girl Hollie Grieg, pictured, now aged 30, is at the centre of allegations that she was abused over a ten year period by an Aberdeen-based paedophile ring. She waved her anonymity in order to generate publicity for her plight.)
The Crown Office has declined to answer a Freedom of Information request made by The Drum about who paid the bills for its boss, Scotland’s Lord Advocate, Elish Angiolini, in legal action she took against the media.
The information is exempted from disclosure, says the Crown Office, “on the basis that it would be likely to prejudice substantially the prevention and detection of crime.”
Angiolini had threatened to sue The Drum’s sister title, legal magazine The Firm, for libel, and the Crown Office issued a statement to all Scottish news desks that a report in The Firm was potentially defamatory. As well as who paid Angiolini’s costs, The Drum also asked how much the bill was.
The contentious article in The Firm reported criticism of the fact that nobody had been prosecuted over a case in which £13,500 was awarded by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board to Hollie Greig, a Down Syndrome child said to be the victim of a paedophile ring in Aberdeen.
It is very unusual for a Government appointee to sue the media for defamation. And, despite being the largest employer of lawyers in Scotland, the Lord Advocate chose to use a private lawyer, Peter Watson of Levy & McRae, to represent her in the action against The Firm.
Mr Watson also represents disgraced Glasgow City Council leader, Steven Purcell, who is now under police investigation. If evidence of criminal activity is found, the matter would be reported to Angiolini’s department, the Crown Office.
Levy & McRae also represents several major media outlets and has links to PR firm Media House, leading some to express concerns about potential conflicts of interest.
Richard Draycott, Editor of The Drum, said: “We felt it was a matter of real public interest to find out who was paying Elish Angiolini’s bills. Was the magazine up against the Scottish Government or Angiolini personally? If the Scottish Government did foot the bill was that appropriate? After all, any award would have been due to her personally. Is defending the reputation of Government appointees an appropriate use of public funds?
“If she had won, she could have picked up more for damage to her reputation than the original victim did for being raped. The key issue is whether or not this sets a bad precedent. It cannot be healthy for Government officials to launch libel actions against the press, underwritten by the Government.”
In the event the action was dropped, and a referral to the Press Complaints Commission was settled without an adjudication being made.
Draycott added: “The Crown Office’s reluctance to answer questions from the media is not only frustrating us, but contributed to The Firm’s original dispute with the prosecution service. Early on it wanted to know exactly when Angiolini was appointed regional prosecutor for the North East of Scotland and when exactly the decision was made not to prosecute the only individual ever charged in connection with the Hollie Greig case. It was only when legal correspondence reached an advanced stage that it was confirmed she was appointed for the area on the 21st of July 2000. The decision not to prosecute was taken on the 20th of July 2000.”
Angiolini continued, through Peter Watson, to threaten legal action elsewhere in relation to this matter.
In February Levy & McRae, wrote to an English-based website – UK Column – in the name of the Lord Advocate – threatening legal action on behalf of a sheriff who had been named in the Hollie Greig allegations (see a copy of the letter in the Gallery). In submissions to The Firm the Lord Advocate claimed to have only a passing acquaintance with this Sheriff.
That is another reason The Drum wanted to know who picked up the legal bill. If Angiolini was paying personally this would seem to be at odds with this position.
Across the UK, libel reform is on the agenda following the case of Simon Singh, who won after being sued by the British Chiropractic Association. Many observers have pointed out that the expense of defending libel actions can lead to a ‘chilling’ effect on the media as journalists may shy away from criticising those wealthy enough to launch defamation actions.
Although the law is different North of the Border, defending a libel action in Scotland can still be ruinously expensive.
As part of the Freedom of Information request The Drum also asked if any other media advisers had been retained by the Lord Advocate in dealing with this matter.
(Published on 28 April 2010)
The Press Complaints Commission’s decision in the case of Watson vs The Drum
The article reported that the Crown Office in Scotland had declined to answer a Freedom of Information request made by the magazine in regard to “legal action” undertaken by the Lord Advocate of Scotland, Elish Angiolini. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate and misleading on two points: the claim that “legal action” pursued by the Lord Advocate, his client, had been “dropped”; and the claim that Levy & McRae had written to UK Column “threatening legal action on behalf of a Sheriff who had been named in the Hollie Greig allegations”.
The Commission firstly considered the reference to “legal action” in the article. The article as a whole had referred variously to: “libel action” (in the headline); “legal action”; the Lord Advocate having “threatened to sue”; it being “unusual for a Government appointee to sue the media”; “action against The Firm”; and “action”. The complainant had argued that the reference to the “action” being “dropped” suggested that formal legal proceedings had been raised, which was not the case; the magazine had pointed to the fact that the Lord Advocate had instructed the complainant to act on her behalf, had instructed Counsel and had issued legal warnings to the media for “defamatory” allegations.
The question for the Commission was whether readers would have been misled by these references and, in particular, the statement that the action had been “dropped”. It decided that they would not. In its view, the references to “action” were broad, reflecting the magazine’s interpretation of what had occurred following the publication of the original article in The Firm. It was not in dispute that the complainant himself, or Counsel, had been instructed following this. In those circumstances – in addition to the fact that the article referred to legal action being “threatened” – the Commission did not consider that the general reader would have been significantly misled. The word “dropped”, in addition, did not carry an exclusively legal definition. The Commission did not consider that readers would have taken this to mean that formal legal proceedings had been raised and then not pursued. There was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code on this issue.
The second point for the Commission to consider was the reference to the letter sent by Levy & McRae to UK Column. The article had stated the following: “In February Levy & McRae, wrote to an English-based website – UK Column – in the name of the Lord Advocate – threatening legal action on behalf of a Sheriff who had been named in the Hollie Greig allegations.”
The complainant had confirmed that Levy & McRae did not and had not ever acted on behalf of the Sheriff in question and complained that it was inaccurate and misleading for the magazine to have suggested otherwise. The magazine had argued that the article had not stated that Levy & McRae were acting directly for the Sheriff; rather, it had said that Levy & McRae had written to UK Column in February in the name of the Lord Advocate about the Sheriff.
In the Commission’s view, this point rested on an interpretation of the letter in question, which the magazine had provided to the Commission as part of the correspondence. The letter stated that the firm acted on behalf of the Lord Advocate. This was reflected in the article, which reported that the firm had written in the name of the Lord Advocate. The letter also warned that, unless action was taken, proceedings may be raised for breach of interdict and for harassment. The Commission found that the magazine had been justified in assuming that the firm was threatening legal proceedings on behalf of the Sheriff (in some capacity) in light of the fact that the letter identified only the Sheriff – and not the Lord Advocate – as the individual who had been granted the interdict. The Commission considered that - given the content of the letter from the firm to UK Column and the manner in which the matter had been reported by the magazine – whether or not Levy & McRae acted for the Sheriff was not a significant point which would require the newspaper to publish a clarification.