Forensics Expert Takes Stand at Sorrell vs. Benatti Libel Trial

Says 'Cyber' Clues Reveal Likely Identity of Mystery Bloggers

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LONDON ( -- 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." Today, the trial's fifth day, was saved for cyber forensics, as internet expert Peter Sommer backed Mr. Sorrell's claim that the two Italians waged an internet hate campaign against him.
Martin Sorrell
Photo: Newscom

Martin Sorrell outside High Court in London last week before the start of his libel trial. During today's proceedings, the WPP Group chief executive talked on his phone and paced the corridors, thumbing his Blackberry. He still had time to discuss the progress of the cricket World Cup competition going on in the West Indies. | ALSO: Comment on this article in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

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Still a mystery
Today's proceedings began with the final 45 minutes of testimony via video-link from Daniela Weber, chief operating officer of WPP Italy, who was closely linked to Messrs. Sorrell and Benatti. Journalists again were barred from the courtroom during her testimony. It is unclear why Team Sorrell is determined to keep Ms. Weber's identity secret. She was given special dispensation to testify from Italy via video-link rather than take the short flight from Milan to London.

London daily The Times has been doing its best put a face to Ms. Weber; it has even obtained a photo but was prevented from printing it in today's edition by a last-minute injunction engineered by Mr. Sorrell's solicitor, Mark Thomson.

Mr. Sorrell 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 Ms. Weber are also suing them for breach of privacy.

Another witness for WPP, Dominic Grainger, managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa region of WPP's Group M media arm, took the stand next -- in person. Mr. Benatti's barrister, Andrew Caldecott, questioned Mr. Garinger with regards to the sacking last year of Mediaedge:cia's managing director in Germany, and about the e-mail list of people who knew about the termination before his dismissal on March 20, 2006, in an effort to narrow down the identity of the anonymous blog author to a small group of people who knew of the executive's firing.

The executive had sent an e-mail to Mr. Sorrell with the attention-grabbing subject line "Birthday." The e-mail itself was an attempt to find an alternative role at WPP Group; the executive stated wistfully that everyone was entitled to a birthday wish and that his was to be re-employed at WPP.

Visibly relieved that his moment in the dock was over, Mr. Grainger joined his colleagues. Peter Sommer, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, where his speciality is the reliability of digital evidence, testified next. His role was to make sense of the cyber clues recovered from computers used by Messrs. Benatti and Tinelli and others.

Mr. Sommer, who has an undisclosed health problem, is under doctor's orders to work no more than two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, and the court was accordingly very solicitous of his health. But Mr. Sommer did not come across as fragile and had an amazing command of the case's mass of highly technical forensic evidence. There were so many boxes of files around him on the stand that a "loader" was redeployed from Mr. Sorrell's legal team to assist Mr. Sommer with locating all the relevant documents as the questioning commenced.
High Court in London, where the sensational libel trial is taking place.
High Court in London, where the sensational libel trial is taking place.

Lunch break and cricket updates
Journalists, slightly baffled by all the technical talk, during a lunch break requested from Mr. Thomson a copy of Mr. Sommer's witness statement. Such documents are routinely handed out to journalists, but Mr. Thomson said he was too busy to supply the statement and that it was "too technical" to be of much use to the media. (During the breaks Mr. Sorrell talked on his phone and paced the corridors, thumbing his Blackberry. He still had time to discuss the progress of the cricket World Cup competition going on in the West Indies.) The journalists, undeterred, handed the judge a handwritten note on Times note paper requesting Mr. Sommer's statement.

The court was adjourned as Mr. Thomson and his team were dispatched to photocopy the lengthy statement, which details Mr. Sommer's forensic examination of the computer evidence. The case is being heard without a jury, so there is no explanation of the arguments, which makes it almost impossible for the journalists to follow the questioning. The jury was dispensed with on the grounds that there was too much complicated cyber evidence for them to follow.

Mr. Sommer's witness statement explains why he believes that Messrs. Benatti and Tinelli were probably responsible for a series of defamatory blogs and the e-mailing of a "grossly offensive" image of Mr. Sorrell and Ms. Weber.

The computer expert describes the disclosure process of obtaining the cyber evidence as a "tortuous and iterative affair," which "constrained" his ability to provide analysis and offer opinion.

However, Mr. Sommer still had plenty to say in his statement. He notes that Mr. Tinelli "downplays his skills and says he has no specific IT training or qualifications," although Mr. Sommer describes Mr. Tinelli as a "sophisticated" user of the internet. (In fact, he chaired the cyber jury at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival in 2003.)

Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber Dissidents
Mr. Sommer also notes the presence of the Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber Dissidents on the hard drive of Mr. Tinelli's computer. The book "contains detailed instructions which match very closely the methods used to conceal publication of the blogs and emails in this case," he said.

The witness statement says it is "relatively unlikely" that a third party had used Mr. Tinelli's laptop at various times, and looks specifically at events on March 23, 2006, at about 9:30 p.m. "This is where a number of e-mail lists and one of the offending attachments were copied to a USB stick. The timing suggest that they were all done by the same person and suggests after-hours activity, when unusual behavior would surely have shown up."

Mr. Sommer concludes that the "position of the defendants, when faced with the electronic evidence, has been to suggest that persons unknown were responsible for the distribution of the blogs and e-mails. ... It surely cannot be difficult to produce a list of potential suspects ... [but] at no stage have I been made aware of any such alternative candidates."

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Coming up tomorrow: Mr. Caldecott opens the case for the defense on behalf of Messrs. Benatti and Tinelli.
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