Statement in open court in Ashley v TNL

The Times settles libel claim brought by businessman

A joint statement in open court has been read today in a libel claim brought by Mike Ashley.

Between 16 and 18 July 2020, TNL, the publisher of The Times, published seven articles in various formats billed as a Times Investigation into a mobile phone service company called Sport Mobile and the person who ran it, John Shepherd. The newspaper reported upon claims made by Mr Shepherd in covert recordings that he had ‘fixed’ the mobile phone records of his clients, including ‘protecting’ texts and calls of Mike Ashley, the Chief Executive Officer and majority shareholder of Frasers Group plc, formerly Sports Direct International plc, when he was involved in a high-profile commercial dispute in 2017 (Blue v Ashley [2017] EWHC 1928).

Mr Ashley sued TNL for libel.

In a judgment handed down on 23 July 2021, following a preliminary issue trial, Mr Justice Saini held that all the articles bore the natural and ordinary meaning that there are grounds to suspect that Mr Shepherd and his company, Sport Mobile, helped Mr Ashley in avoiding disclosure of potentially relevant text messages and phone records in the 2017 High Court proceedings brought by Mr Blue. In addition, one of the articles (published in hard copy and online) bore the additional meaning that there are grounds to suspect that Mr Ashley knew that Sport Mobile could have obtained his text message records while telling the court he could not get those messages. These were Chase level 2 meanings.

Following the hearing, TNL made an Offer of Amends, which was accepted.

On 2 March 2022, a joint statement in open court was read on Mr Ashley’s behalf by Adam Speker QC. He told the court that TNL had ‘published an apology and retraction and … agreed to pay substantial damages to Mr Ashley as well as his legal costs. The Defendant…. has accepted that any allegation of wrongdoing by Mr Ashley in his litigation with Jeffrey Blue are untrue.’

Emily Costello for TNL confirmed all that had been said on Mr Ashley’s behalf. She told the Court that ‘Times Newspapers Limited did not intend to make the allegations that the court found the articles to bear. It accepts that the allegations are untrue and withdraws them and apologises to Mr Ashley.

A copy of the statement in open court can be found here.

5RB’s Adam Speker QC and Victoria Jolliffe acted for Mr Ashley, instructed by Claire Gill and Dominic Garner of Carter-Ruck.