27 Nov 2014

Andrew Mitchell loses ‘plebgate’ libel case

The former Conservative chief whip says he is “bitterly disappointed” after a judge finds, on the balance of probability, he did use the word “pleb” during a row with Downing Street police in 2012.

Andrew Mitchell says he is “bitterly disappointed” after losing his high court libel action over the “plebgate” incident in a ruling that could see him having to pay millions of pounds worth of legal bills.

The former chief whip sued News Group Newspapers (NGN) over a story that appeared in the Sun in September 2012 which claimed he call Downing Street police officers “plebs”.

The incident, captured on CCTV, took place after police officers refused to allow Mr Mitchell to open the gates of Downing Street to let him pass on his bicycle. The police log of the incident recorded that Mr Mitchell called police “plebs”, a word he has always denied using. He admits using an expletive and being warned by officers about his language.

NGN based its report on the account given by PC Toby Rowland, who counter-sued Mr Mitchell for accusing him of lying about the incident.

On Thursday afternoon Mr Justice Mitting insisted that “on the balance of probabilities” Mr Mitchell did say use the word “pleb” during the heated exchange in 2012.

After considering two-weeks’ worth of evidence from 26 witnesses and considering extensive CCTV footage of the 15-second exchange, Mr Justice Mitting said: “For the reasons given I am satisfied at least on the balance of probabilities that Mr Mitchell did speak the words alleged or something so close to them as to amount to the same including the politically toxic word pleb.”

The judge also said that PC Rowland was “not the sort of man who would have had the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in temper”.

‘Bitterly disappointed’

Speaking outside the Royal Court of Justice after the ruling Mr Mitchell said he was “bitterly disappointed” with the verdict, adding: “This has been a miserable two years. We now need to bring this matter to a close and move on with our lives.”

The “plebgate” episode, which rapidly spiralled in the weeks and months after the incident, threw the Metropolitan police into chaos and saw four Metropolitan Police constables sacked.

They included Keith Wallis, who was jailed and dismissed for emailing his MP, pretending to have witnessed the confrontation.

Officer James Glanville was sacked after it emerged he leaked information to the Sun newspaper, and Susan Johnson lost her job after she exchanged text messages and a phone call with Mr Glanville around the time he contacted the tabloid.

Gillian Weatherley, on duty on the day of the confrontation between Mr Mitchell, was sacked at the end of April over leaks to the press.

Another two officers were given final written warnings in relation to statements they provided to the investigation team or for making inappropriate comments.

‘A personal tragedy’

Former shadow home secretary David Davis, who attended the High Court with Mr Mitchell, said: “I’m disappointed and shocked by the judgment. I am really sorry for my good friend Andrew Mitchell, as a good man brought down.”

But Tory former whip Michael Fabricant suggested Mr Mitchell had made matters worse for himself by pursuing his case for so long. The Lichfield MP said: “This is a personal tragedy for Andrew Mitchell which needn’t have happened if only he had shown a scintilla of humility.”

Mitchell’s lawyers have already been asked to pay two sums of £200,000, ‘interim payments’, to both The Sun and PC Rowland. This figure – out of estimated £3m trial costs – will be discussed, along with damages, at a hearing in a fortnight’s time.