Alastair Mutch remembers the British Steel Papers case and other legal battles

I suppose another very big one was British Steel. But you’ve spoken to David Boltoun about that?  I have to say, David made a slight mistake. He said that Lord Denning was for Granada. Now Denning was not for Granada. He was in the Court of Appeal and they unanimously found against us. The situation being that they asked for the return of their papers initially and that was ordered by the judge in the court of first instance. So they we returned them with all the identifying names snipped off. They were a bit upset! Then they wanted to know who’d provided us with the papers and Denning said, “You’ve got to give the answer,” and we said, “We can’t. Journalist privilege.” Then it went to the House of Lords. I mean, Denning subsequently, in one of his books, said with hindsight he would have found for Granada, but the fact is he didn’t at the time.

When we went to House of Lords, Patrick Neill (later Lord Neill of Bladen) was lead counsel supported by Derry Irvine, who went on to be Lord Chancellor under Tony Blair. The sadness was that Patrick Neill could only represent us for three days in the Lords. I was there, and he faced these five law lords, all sitting in a semicircle, and he was making our case. For every question posed by one of the law lords, he had an answer and a quote as to why he was right. It was like a headmaster with five pupils, but then he had to go off to New Zealand and Irvine took over. Well, he was all bluster and, to be honest, he was not impressive, shall we say. The case went downhill so it became five headmasters and one naughty schoolboy. It was a complete and utter reverse of the previous three days. He lost the case four to one. Lord Salmon was for Granada. Of course we were still not parting with the information. We were going to be held in contempt of court, at which point I think I was made Assistant Company Secretary or something like that because Bill Dickson had been ill. He’d had a heart attack. If anyone was going to go to jail, it ought to be me.

Anyway, shortly afterwards, before anything developed, the mole revealed himself for a large lump of money in one of the national newspapers. The mole turned out to be the chap in the shredding department. So all these papers had gone to the shredder. He’d kept them because he thought they looked interesting, and given them to one of our researchers. British Steel themselves were utterly convinced it was somebody at board level who was the mole. But of course it was the lowest of the low. Why they didn’t suspect that, I don’t know? Fairly obvious where all the papers had gone.

Management were absolutely supportive of journalists. I know there were the odd strikes and so on, but if the management thought that the journalist was right, they would support him 100%, often at the expense of the company as insurers would withdraw our libel insurance cover. For example, if our lawyers said, “You should give in,” and we said “No”, they wouldn’t fund us.

I think probably the clearest demonstration of that is about a dentist. He was a man, and we’re going back to the 70s, who was earning £250,000 a year on the National Health, not private. Well, that was impossible. I mean, you’d have to work 24 hours a day on very high quality work. You just could not do it. He sued us. His car registration was JAWS 1. Good one for a dentist. It was getting very close to court.

Anyway, the lawyers were saying, “You should give in.” Again, it was a bit like the Tucker and Ellison case. There was no documentary evidence. Just that you couldn’t earn that amount of money. We were summoned to go and see Lord Goodman, not to his office, but to his flat in London, and had breakfast with him. Stuart Prebble. It’s Stuart. He said, “Well, you know, my advice is that you concede.” We said, “No, we’re not,” and he said, “Well, get me Denis Forman on the phone.” Lord Goodman spoke to Denis and said, “I recommend that you give in on this one.” He said, “What do my team say?” “They want to fight.” Denis said, “We fight.” On the steps of the court, the dentist withdrew. It was set down and then he just pulled out. Had to pay our costs.

Another interesting one was Willie Morgan. I don’t know if you remember Willie Morgan. He was captain of Manchester United. He also played for Scotland. He appeared on a programme with Gerald Sinstadt talking about football. In his career and he said he had been under Tommy Docherty who was the manager of United. Willie said, “I like to think I’ve worked under the best manager in the world and the worst manager in the world.” Obviously meaning Docherty. Docherty was not very happy about this, so he sued Morgan and Granada. Quite an amusing story because I travelled down to the hearing. It’s one of the ones that went to court. Very unusual that libel cases actually get to court. I travelled down on Sunday from Wimslow with Willie. The train was pretty quiet and we had lunch and I have to say I’ve never had service like it on British Rail. The girls were in and out with, “Can I help you? Can I do…” I mean, it was amazing. I said to Willie, “I’ve never had service like this,” and he said, “Well, you know.” Like when you’re famous, these things happen. Then right at the end, one of the waitresses came up and said, “You are Kevin Keegan, aren’t you?”He was a bit deflated.

Anyway, we went into court, and we had a chap called John Wilmers representing Willie and Granada, who was absolutely devastating. You wouldn’t like to be opposite him. Anyway, let’s face it, Docherty is a man who had faced the press all his life, and put down footballers, and put down journalists, and he was King Dick, really. But Wilmers started cross-examining him, and said, “Mr Docherty, should football managers have probity?” He hesitated and said, “Yes.” “Mr Docherty, what is probity?” “Erm… er… I don’t know.” So he was on a slippery slope from then onwards. And then he said lots of things, but witnesses like Denis Law contradicted him, and effectively proved that Docherty was lying. So on the third day of the hearing, he withdrew, and he had to pay our costs. But it was interesting to see those great legal minds in action.

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