Sorrell: 'I Love to See Lawyers Wriggle'

In London's High Court at Sorrell vs. Benatti Libel Trial

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LONDON (AdAge.com) -- The story so far from courtroom 13 of London's High Court: WPP Group Chief Executive Martin Sorrell is suing Marco Benatti, the former WPP country manager for Italy he dismissed last year, for libel. During the first three days of the trial, it became clear that the main issues are a "vicious" photo that journalists are forbidden by the judge to speculate about, and blogs Mr. Sorrell calls "vengeful and vindictive."
Martin Sorrell
Photo: Newscom

Martin Sorrell outside High Court in London last week before the start of his libel trial. 'I love to see lawyers wriggle,' declared WPP chief today as he bounded out of a session of the sensational libel trial. | ALSO: Comment on this article in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

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Sir Martin is suing Mr. Benatti and Marco Tinelli, CEO for Italy of the FullSix media company founded by Mr. Benatti and partly owned by WPP, for libel. Further, he and Daniela Weber, the chief operating officer of WPP Italy, are also suing them for breach of privacy.

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Today, Ms. Weber, who was close to Messrs. Benatti and Sorrell, testifies. Although both men are in court, she was permitted testify evidence via video link from Milan. Ms. Weber's testimony was heard behind closed doors from which journalists were barred.

The day's session begins at 10:15 a.m. with some procedural points brought up by Mr. Sorrell's attorney, Desmond Browne. A witness for WPP Group who is scheduled to testify tomorrow has health problems and is only able to work two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, so care must be taken to work around his limitations. And Mr. Sorrell will be called back to the stand at some point.

Mr. Benatti is not available on Thursday, so one question is: Can Mr. Sorrell's team introduce testimony using video-conferencing from a witness in Shanghai that morning?

Mr. Browne wants all of Ms. Weber's testimony to be held in private, while Andrew Caldecott, acting for Messrs. Benatti and Tinelli, thinks some of it can be heard in public. The journalists are shunted out of court while that decision is made. Total privacy is decided upon, so we miss out on the opportunity of seeing and hearing the elusive Ms. Weber.

(The Sunday Times in London printed a picture of Ms. Weber last year and then promised never to print it again after she complained that it was a private photograph. Ms. Weber has not made any images of her available, and when a U.K. newspaper dispatched a paparazzo to snap her in Italy last week, the photographer failed in his mission.)
Marco Benatti
Photo: Newscom
Marco Benatti last week in front of High Court


At one point, Mr. Sorrell bounds out of the courtroom declaring, "I love to see lawyers wriggle." Later, he mischievously taunts journalists by saying we were "missing a treat."

These are the only clues to what was going on behind the thick blue velvet curtain and the closed doors.

We get only 45 minutes of court action this morning. After an hour of hanging around outside, we were told to leave and come back at 1:30 p.m. There is discussion of coverage of the trial in the weekend newspapers. Some commentators think an e-mail labeling Mr. Sorrell a "mad dwarf" has offended his ego.

But others feel it's much more than that. They say it's about Mr. Sorrell's determination to stamp out any dissent at WPP Group, and that while he isn't involved in any major deals, his combative nature is being satisfied by the court case. He hasn't missed a second of all four days so far.

We're in! At 1:45 nine journalists cram into the tiny courtroom, which only has room for six of us. Among the journalists are reporters from The Times, The Guardian, and the Daily Mail. There's still the faint hope of a glimpse of Ms. Weber, but instead we get a few minutes of the testimony of Danilo Tani, director-chief financial officer of WPP Italy. He talks about the deterioration of the 20-year working relationship between Ms. Weber and Mr. Benatti, describing how Mr. Benatti felt "frustrated with his position and his lack of power and authority."

Mr. Tani, bearing witness for Mr. Sorrell's team, also gave a glimpse of Ms. Weber's relationship with Mr. Sorrell when he described seeing the pair standing in front of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan while on his way to work on the morning of Friday, Nov. 19, 2004. The incident was described in the context of Mr. Tani's surprise on seeing Mr. Sorrell in Milan, and his concern that there may be an important meeting about which he had not been notified.

He refuted Mr. Benatti's suggestion that Ms. Weber behaved differently or badly with WPP Italy employees as a result of her relationship with Mr. Sorrell. Mr. Tani said, "I certainly did not find this to be the case."

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Coming tomorrow: Ms. Weber is expected to be back on the video link briefly, followed by another WPP witness for Mr. Sorrell, Dominic Grainger, who is the managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Group M, WPP's media arm. Mr. Sorrell will also return to the stand tomorrow. Mr. Caldecott will open the case for the defense on March 21.
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