Sorrell Libel Trial Turns to Talk of Affair

Witnesses for Defense Describe Holiday Jaunts With WPP Italy COO

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LONDON ( -- The story so far from Courtroom 13 of London's High Court: The court heard that the 2005 affair between WPP Group Chief Executive Martin Sorrell and WPP Italy Chief Operating Officer Daniela Weber was well-known throughout the company, as the defense attempted to demonstrate that hundreds of WPP employees were familiar with the information contained in blogs Mr. Sorrell believes to be defamatory. Mr. Sorrell has accused Marco Benatti, WPP's former country manager for Italy, and his lieutenant, Marco Tinelli, of being behind the blogs and distributing via e-mail a "grossly offensive" image of Mr. Sorrell and Ms. Weber. Mr. Sorrell fired Mr. Benatti as WPP's country manager for Italy last year; Mr. Tinelli runs Italian media company FullSix, started by Mr. Benatti and minority-owned by WPP.
Martin Sorrell
Photo: Newscom

Martin Sorrell outside High Court in London last week before the start of his libel trial. Today, his litigator attempted to discredit one witness, accusing her of deliberately lying about her employment status in her witness statement. | ALSO: Comment on this article in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

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Daniela Weber's holidays
Daniela Weber, WPP Italy chief operating officer, apparently made no attempt to hide her relationship with her boss, WPP Chief Executive Martin Sorrell, said Monica Mormina, a marketing manager at WPP Italy from February 2005 to January 2006.

"It was generally known that they met publicly and holidayed together," she said from the witness stand today. "I recall Daniela Weber took no steps to create the impression that she was holidaying elsewhere. My judgment was that she felt her position in the office was strengthened by her relationship with Martin Sorrell."

When it was suggested that she and Marco Benatti, WPP's former country manager for Italy, were "very hostile to WPP," she asked, incredulously, "Who wouldn't be?"

Mr. Benatti and Ms. Mormina are both claiming unfair dismissal in two separate legal actions against WPP that have yet to be heard. Desmond Browne, Mr. Sorrell's barrister (or litigating attorney), attempted to discredit Ms. Mormina, accusing her of deliberately lying about her employment status in her witness statement, and suggesting she and Mr. Benatti are merely "supporting each other" in the two cases.

Speaking through an interpreter, Ms. Mormina replied, "We are witnesses to the same events."

Ms. Mormina denied she was personally hostile toward Mr. Sorrell, but did not attempt to conceal her hostility toward Ms. Weber. "She has a very difficult personality. Anyone who works with her knows that. I don't like people who don't behave correctly," she said.

Her witness statement underlines these feelings: "I found Daniela Weber challenging to work for -- I felt that she had a somewhat aggressive attitude and liked to exercise power. She was well known in the office for these traits."

Ms. Mormina also claimed that Ms. Weber "felt her position in the office was strengthened by her relationship with Martin Sorrell." She said she had known Ms. Weber since 1996. "In those years Mr. Benatti was able to control Ms. Weber's exuberance. After two maternity leaves I went back to work in 2005 and my perception was that Mr. Benatti was not able to handle or manage her any more."
Daniela Weber, the lady in question
Daniela Weber, the lady in question Credit: Nick Ray, The Times UK

Behind closed doors once again
As has been the norm in the trial since its start last week, journalists were thrown out of the courtroom while the hearing continued in private. Messrs. Benatti and Tinelli's legal team, headed by the barrister Andrew Caldecott, has been handing out copies of witness statements immediately as each witness takes the stand. Earlier in the week, journalists had to battle with Mr. Sorrell's team to obtain a witness statement until the judge adjourned proceedings while the photocopies were made.

During the break, Mr. Sorrell paced the corridors with his Blackberry, a familiar site this week. Not so familiar was his yawn -- seven days in court have obviously taken a toll on Sir Martin.

Silvia Arbasino, 33, Mr. Benatti's personal assistant, took the stand next as a character reference for Mr. Benatti. She described Mr. Benatti as "friendly and approachable ... an inspirational and kind person. ... I consider him to be a gentleman and, given the crudeness of the e-mails [that are] the subject of this claim, I would be shocked to learn that he had had anything to do with them."

Ms. Arbasino testified that Mr. Benatti's "family are of huge importance to him. ... Marco Benatti's family lives in Verona, and for as long as I have worked for him, he has spent almost every Friday, and alternate weekends, there."

'An element of amusement'
Ms. Arbasino's witness statement bolsters the defense's contention that information in the three blogs was widely known, details such as Mr. Sorrell's frequent use of his BlackBerry; his "micromanagement" techniques; the affair with Ms. Weber; his birth date; a falling out with Mr. Benatti. Her statements supply insights into the blogs' content; she mentions a reference to Mr. Sorrell "beating up a bunch of Italian managers to get revenge from a romantic deception" and another to "American managers in jail."

But, Ms. Arbasino says in her statement, "to the very best of my knowledge [Ms. Weber and Mr. Benatti] never had a sexual relationship."

The statement goes on to say: "It would be unrealistic to say that there was not an element of amusement in reading these things about Sir Martin Sorrell. I remember clicking on the link entitled 'Poisoned Dwarf,' which led me to another website criticizing Martin. It struck me that he had many enemies and critics."

Ms. Arbasino also discusses her relationship with Ms. Weber: "She trusted me both professionally and personally. She imparted to me a lot of information about her life and feelings and I think she regarded me as a friend. However, since Marco's dismissal, our personal relationship has effectively ended."

She describes the breakdown in the relationship between Ms. Weber and Mr. Benatti. "Relations ... started to deteriorate after a meeting between Marco and Martin in London in October 2005. Marco mentioned to me before he left for London that he was thinking of proposing a different role for Daniela due to the strain she was under in her relationship with Martin. ... Daniela said to me after the event that she had felt betrayed and disappointed by Marco."

After lunch, the rest of the day's proceedings were again in private.
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