How the News of the World threatened PinkNews after Ashley Cole expose
Five years ago, PinkNews.co.uk became entangled in one of the most complex libel disputes in recent times between the News of the World and the footballer Ashley Cole. Legal threats against PinkNews.co.uk made by the News of the World could have threatened this publication with closure. As the News of the World prepares to publish its last edition, we look back at this extraordinary case.
The News of the World and the Sun published a series of articles between the 12th and 19th of February 2006 accompanied with pixelated photographs what they claimed were a Premiership football player and a well known DJ who had engaged in a gay sex act involving a mobile telephone. The alleged act resulted in the headline “Gay as You Go”.
“Music Figure A” and “Player A” (Source: News of the World)
The following week, PinkNews.co.uk published an unedited version of the photographs that revealed that the people featured in the original photograph were Ashley Cole and the Choice FM DJ Masterstepz (Ian Thompson). Although PinkNews.co.uk did not claim that either men were gay, it did reveal that the photograph in the News of the World was of them, and that it was an obscured version of a photograph hosted on the Choice FM website.
MasterStepz and Ashley Cole (Source: Choice FM)
Both the News of the World and the Choice FM photographs superimposed on each other
Following the publication of the photographs on PinkNews.co.uk, Mr Cole and Mr Thompson began legal action against the News of the World and the Sun but not against PinkNews.co.uk. At the time, PinkNews.co.uk claimed that it wanted to expose the tactics of the News of the World, rather than out anyone.
Solicitors for the News of the World and The Sun then wrote to PinkNews.co.uk stating that they reserve the right to commence third party proceedings against the site under the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978 in relation to the libel claims of Mr Cole but not Mr Thompson. The letter claimed that the newspapers had not intended to name either party and that their identity was only known through the publication of photographs on PinkNews.co.uk, something that the publishers of this website denied.
At the time, a News of the World spokesperson justified the threat of legal action against PinkNews.co.uk telling The Press Gazette: “The irony of this case is that those who did not identify Cole as being allegedly involved have been sued. Those who did, and continue to name him, have not. The newspapers’ liability ends with its publications and does not extend to subsequent publications by others.”
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the Press Gazette described the case as “the most unusual and complex libel disputes of recent years” as it related to the ‘jigsawing’ of information published in newspapers and information available on the internet.
Benjamin Cohen, then editor of PinkNews.co.uk told the Press Gazette: “PinkNews.co.uk behaved in a responsible way in its handling of the Ashley Cole story. At no point did we claim that Mr Cole was gay.
“All that PinkNews.co.uk did was to publish what it believed (and subsequently emerged) to be the original version of a photograph edited by the News of the World.”
Ashley Cole’s solicitors then utilised an advertisement on PinkNews.co.uk to find out the extent to which readers looked at the stories about unnamed gay footballers and then looked on the internet to link them with Ashley Cole
After months of legal wrangling, the News of the World and The Sun agreed to pay damages, believed to be £100,000 to Mr Cole and damages to Mr Thompson (Masterstepz). Had PinkNews.co.uk, at that point a start-up been faced with sharing the damages, it would have been forced to close.
An apology printed on page three of the News of the World stated: “‘Although the photograph was pixellated some readers have understood Mr Cole to be one of the footballers and Masterstepz to be the DJ concerned. We are happy to make clear that Mr Cole and Masterstepz were not involved in any such activities. We apologise to them for any distress caused and we will be paying them each a sum in the way of damages.”
While the News of the World confirmed that the footballer involved was not Ashley Cole, it never named any other footballer as being part of the alleged orgy and never returned to the story. News International, the parent company of The Sun and the News of the World later confirmed that it would take no action against PinkNews.co.uk