The Adworld Libel Trial That Dwarfs All Others
Martin Sorrell vs. Former WPP Italy Execs: Lurid Accusations, Secretly Taped Meetings
LONDON (AdAge.com) -- It's a trial packed with all the sensationalism the tabloid press could want -- money, power, sex, murder threats and even the mafia --
and sitting coolly in the center of it all, in crowded courtroom 13 of the High Court of England & Wales, is WPP Group Chief Executive Martin Sorrell.
'The mad dwarf'
That's Sir Martin to you -- not "the mad dwarf," as the holding-company chief claims his courtroom opponent, Marco Benatti, referred to him.
Since March 14, when Mr. Sorrell's libel trial began against Mr. Benatti, WPP's former country manager for Italy, lurid accusations have been flying behind the walls of the imposing Gothic building opened by Queen Victoria in 1882. The action alleges that Mr. Benatti and fellow defendant Marco Tinelli (who was president-CEO of the FullSix media company started by Mr. Benatti and partly owned by WPP) were behind a smear campaign against Mr. Sorrell.
Photos and blogs
The WPP boss charges the pair distributed a "vicious" photo via e-mail, along with scurrilous blogs portraying him as a mafioso-like figure tauntingly described as Don Martino. The communications purportedly referred to Mr. Sorrell and Daniela Weber, chief operating officer of WPP in Italy, as the "mad dwarf and nympho schizo."
Oh, yes, and then there's the fact that Mr. Sorrell testified he was told by Mr. Benatti's former wife that Mr. Benatti wanted to kill him.
At the trial, likely to last three weeks, presiding Justice David Eady and the barristers, or litigation attorneys, for each side wear traditional white, curled wigs and black gowns and are surrounded by laptops and file-filled boxes. When he's not in the witness box, he seems very much in control, seated in front of his prominent barrister, Desmond Browne, while Mr. Benatti sits in the gallery behind his solicitors (the lawyers who instruct the litigating barristers) with a translator on his arm.
Secret tape recordings
Consider, for example, how Mr. Sorrell handled cross-examination after describing how he secretly taped -- much to the consternation of the defendants' attorney -- meetings with the defendants. During a meeting in Italy on Jan. 9, 2006, in which he fired Mr. Benatti, he secretly taped the meeting -- and several others -- without the knowledge or consent of Mr. Benatti or Mr. Tinelli. The tapes Mr. Sorrell secretly recorded were never heard nor seen by the defendants before the trial began this week, said an exasperated Andrew Caldecott, the defendants' attorney.
"Was it explained to you the importance in providing ... information on these serious allegations?" he asked Mr. Sorrell dramatically.
Mr. Sorrell, looking dapper in a dark-gray suit and green tie, replied that it was up to his legal advisers to decide what should and shouldn't be disclosed. He also told the court that the meetings were secretly taped on the advice of his own criminal and civil attorneys in Italy.
"This trial was originally scheduled to start on March 5. ... Why didn't you say this [Jan. 9] meeting was recorded?" Mr. Caldecott asked.
"I do not believe that it was necessary," Mr. Sorrell shot back.
His attorney Mr. Browne, an earl's grandson, is a barracuda who reportedly once kept a farmer and his wife on the witness stand for 45 days until their case crumbled. Mr. Caldecott is also an aggressive barrister, although he quite likes walking and writing plays.
Naturally, the trial has stirred the fascination of the British media. However, journalists have been warned several times in court by Justice Eady not to overstep the various court orders restricting what can and cannot be published about the case -- and are scolded by him when they do. The half-dozen journalists who attend the trial are like yo-yos as they are hustled out of the courtroom when "private matters" concerning the details of the blogs are discussed at length. When a note barring them is taken off the door, they get to go back in.
On March 19 Ms. Weber, the WPP executive who was close to both Mr. Sorrell and Mr. Benatti, is scheduled to testify March 19. To journalists' great disappointment, she won't come to court but is expected to use videoconferencing, and reporters likely will be banished if her testimony dwells on the "vicious" e-mail photo and blogs.
Mr. Sorrell seeks libel damages and an injunction against the defendants in relation to their responsibility for publishing defamatory allegations on anonymous blogs, now taken down, at donmartino.blogspot.com, donmartino.blogspirit.com and donmartino.blog.com.
Messrs. Benatti and Tinelli agree these blogs existed and were untrue, and even offered an apology, rebuffed by Mr. Sorrell. But they deny involvement in publishing the blogs.
To win, Mr. Sorrell must prove the defendants were behind the blogs. However, during cross-examination of Mr. Sorrell, Mr. Caldecott noted that an item called "Bloggers United" in an internal WPP News Bulletin dated March 2007 said professional bloggers were all over WPP. Sir Martin pointed out that he himself is not a blogger and claimed that although bloggers were "springing up like mushrooms" in his company of 97,000 employees, that document was irrelevant.
Additional legal actions
The libel case won't end the Benatti-Sorrell feud. In January 2006, WPP's lawyers started U.K. proceedings against Mr. Benatti for breach of his consultancy agreement and related claims. Mr. Benatti's side tried to file proceedings for breach of contract and defamation against WPP and Mr. Sorrell in a court in Verona, Italy. This was a "blatant attempt" to get jurisdiction in Italy, Mr. Sorrell stated. After various legal hurdles, WPP won jurisdiction to try the case in the U.K., but Mr. Benatti has, of course, appealed that verdict.
FullSix issued a statement saying the company "will abstain from making any comment" on the legal action.
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Laurel Wentz contributed to this report.