Brian Cathcart on how the Sunday tabloid admitted that it published a false defamatory story about a member of the public, but still dragged her through court.
Danielle Hindley is a chatty beautician aged 34 who lives in the former mining village of Kippax, near Leeds.
In her 20s, she went through a disastrous marriage that left her single, broke and with a baby, but she worked her way back, building up a nice little business in her home while raising her son.
By late 2017, ‘Dolly’s Nails, Hair and Beauty’ had a strong client base, a battery of five-star reviews and rising profits, while Hindley was content with life and her son was doing well at school.
It’s a story that might easily feature in an article about women who suffer calamity and then, by hard work and force of character, turn their lives around. But, when the press came knocking on Hindley’s door two years ago, it was not to acknowledge her self-reliance. Instead, the Mail on Sunday published a libellous attack on her that ruined her business and her health, as well as the health and wellbeing of her son.
Astonishingly, the company asserted – in effect – that it had not meant what it said in the correction.
Hindley took her case to the press complaints body, IPSO, but the process dragged on for months and, when the newspaper finally agreed to print a mealy-mouthed correction, it hid it where most readers would not notice. She then sued the Mail on Sunday for libel, but still it dragged its heels – even though it knew it was in the wrong.
Two years on, she has won the case. Associated Newspapers, which owns the Mail on Sunday, is paying her damages and has published an apology.
The company is not a faceless entity. It has a proprietor, Jonathan, Viscount Rothermere, and an editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, while the editor of the Mail on Sunday when the libel occurred was Geordie Greig (who now edits the Daily Mail). They are responsible for the editorial and corporate culture that wrecked Danielle Hindley’s life.
The Botch-Job Hit-Job
On 31 December 2017 – New Year’s Eve – the Mail on Sunday published a two-page spread with the headline ‘CURSE OF THE COSMETIC COWBOYS’. It began:
Rogue beauticians are carrying out dangerous and illegal procedures which can leave women permanently disfigured, the Mail on Sunday can reveal… Some of the practices exposed by our reporter are illegal. Others, which risk blindness, severe blood loss and even death, are allowed because of lax UK regulations. Many of these treatments are banned elsewhere.
The accompanying ‘Case Study 1’ concerned Hindley. Beneath a photograph of a woman’s face that appeared badly disfigured came the words:
With her swollen eyes surrounded by a shocking array of burn marks, this is one beautician’s client 48 hours after a treatment experts say should only be given by qualified medics.
Annabelle Smith (not her real name) saw Danielle Hindley, of Dolly’s Hair, Nails and Beauty, in Kippax, Leeds, for a new procedure called plasma skin tightening.
Ms Smith said she was left feeling ‘depressed’ by the results. While some swelling is to be expected, her face two days later showed the extreme effect the treatment can have. She claims she is still suffering side effects four months later. ‘My eyes were so swollen I could barely see – like my eyes had turned inside out,’ she said.
After stating that, in some countries, though not Britain, plasma skin tightening may only be carried out by doctors, the article continued:
Our reporter had a 45-minute undercover appointment with Ms Hindley, who assured her nothing could go wrong, saying it was ‘one of the easiest treatments I have ever learnt to do’.
Ms Hindley… denied any wrongdoing regarding Ms Smith and said the ‘alleged markings’ four months later had never been reported to her. She claimed the possibility of swelling, ‘was discussed in great detail, not only verbally but in the consultation form signed by the client’.
No ordinary reader would have had any doubt: the Mail on Sunday was saying that Hindley was a ‘cosmetic cowboy’ and ‘rogue beautician’ of a kind who recklessly botches dangerous treatments they are not qualified to administer.
This was false. Or, as the owners of the Mail on Sunday have accepted in this week’s agreed court statement: “There was no truth in these very grave allegations”. Hindley practises within the law, she is amply qualified to do what she does and she has hundreds of satisfied customers.
The woman identified by the newspaper as Annabelle Smith experienced a common reaction and, monitored by Hindley, was back to normal in days. Alarming as her picture may have seemed, she had been painstakingly warned that such a short-term reaction was possible, even likely, and she had signed a document before her treatment saying that she understood and accepted this.
By the time of the Mail on Sunday article, Smith – for reasons that are not clear – had been harassing Hindley for months, though her complaints to a series of professional and official organisations had all been rejected. When she continued the attacks on social media and by telephone and email, she received warnings from the police.
It was those online attacks, however, that caught the attention of the Mail on Sunday. And even though Hindley explained to the newspaper in writing that Smith was not a reliable witness, it does not appear to have checked. Instead, it sent an undercover reporter to Dolly’s Hair, Nails and Beauty equipped with a hidden camera to record a beauty session with Hindley. The reporter, Charlotte Wace, discovered nothing of substance to support Smith’s complaint.
To sum up, the Mail on Sunday published serious and damaging allegations it now admits were false and it did so despite having been warned that they came from an unreliable witness – and after carrying out an undercover intrusion that yielded nothing.
The Personal Impact
For Hindley, this was catastrophic and the damage began even before publication. She had already spent a lot of time contesting the unjustified complaints of Annabelle Smith but, after Wace’s visit in November, she was horrified to discover that she was in the crosshairs of the national press.
For five desperate weeks, she tried to head off disaster. She phoned, wrote emails, consulted the police and tried (in vain) to recruit a solicitor. She even posted a YouTube video defending herself.
At the same time, she was reeling from a sense of violation and shock. Dolly’s has no distinct premises; Hindley works in two rooms of her terraced house. Wace and her camera had thus penetrated into her home, capturing on camera both a visiting friend and her schoolboy son.
Hindley’s health deteriorated through December so that in the busiest month of the year she could work only in patches. Then, on New Year’s Eve, despite all her efforts, the Mail on Sunday published.
A wave of cancellations followed. The article circulated widely on social media and Hindley began to hear of conversations in pubs and hairdressers in which her name was dragged through the mud. The reputation and clientèle she had spent years building up were in tatters.
Feeling suicidal and fearful of the outside world, she took to her bed. Her son, who himself was experiencing bullying as a result of the gossip, helped care for her. Bills went unpaid and debts piled up. She let one employee go and cut the hours of the other. The business was barely functioning.
The Poodle Regulator
One thing Hindley managed to do was write to the press regulator, IPSO, the complaints-handling body to which the Mail newspapers belong. Despite the assertion that it is independent, it was set up, is owned, funded and in important ways overseen by the big newspaper groups.
IPSO took six months to rule on the matter, during which time a case officer became so concerned about Hindley’s mental state that she sent her contact details for the Samaritans. The ruling when it finally came was a mixed bag.
On whether the Mail on Sunday’s story had been inaccurate, IPSO found that the Mail on Sunday “had not provided… sufficient basis for the allegation that the complainant [Hindley] had acted improperly or recklessly” and “gave a significantly misleading impression of the complainant’s conduct because it suggested that she was guilty of wrongdoing”.
At the same time, IPSO rejected Hindley’s complaint that the newspaper had breached her privacy by entering her home covertly and with a hidden camera. Subterfuge had been justified, IPSO said, because “there was a public interest in conducting an investigation in order to establish the veracity of the claims made by the complainant’s former client”. IPSO does not appear even to have considered whether, before resorting to subterfuge, the Mail on Sunday should have run basic checks on the credibility of its source
Nonetheless, Hindley had scored a significant victory on the point of accuracy. But, what remedy did IPSO deliver?
There was no question of compensation and, although IPSO boasts that it can impose big fines, it never actually does. Nor would it mount a formal investigation or require the Mail on Sunday to raise its standards or discipline its staff. What did that leave? The newspaper was required to publish a correction, the wording of which was to be agreed with IPSO (not with Hindley), and which should have appeared on page two.
The eventual text acknowledged that the newspaper had “suggested” Hindley was a rogue beautician and cosmetic cowboy and said that it was “happy to make clear” she was not. If this language was weaselly, at least the newspaper admitted: “We did not have a basis to suggest that Ms Hindley had ‘botched’ treatments, as implied by the article”. There was no apology.
What happened next surprised even seasoned observers of IPSO’s feebleness.
The day before publication of the correction was due, the newspaper asked if it could shift it from page two to page eight – on the grounds that it had a big story running over the first few pages. And IPSO, without even informing Hindley, agreed.
How they must have laughed at the Mail on Sunday! Hindley had had to wait seven months to receive even the most grudging form of vindication – and now it had been allowed to bury it on page eight.
But Hindley was not laughing. She had wanted the world to see that her reputation had been wrecked without justification but, when the moment came, she wasn’t even able to find the correction and knew few readers would have spotted it.
The Libel Case
I interviewed Hindley for an article about IPSO and she mentioned that more than one solicitor had told her she didn’t have a case to sue for libel. I put this to media lawyer Jonathan Coad, who has a record of taking on unscrupulous newspapers, and he took a different view.
Coad offered Hindley a ‘no-win, no-fee’ agreement and secured appropriate insurance, which meant that she would not face the mountainous cost risks usually involved in such cases. On her instructions, he wrote to Associated Newspapers on 12 November 2018 advising of Hindley’s intention to sue for libel.
After the frustrations and disappointments of IPSO, Hindley now had grounds for hope and, since the Mail on Sunday had admitted in print that its allegations were groundless, it seemed reasonable to expect a speedy resolution. That is not what happened.
Associated Newspapers replied to Coad saying that it would provide a substantive response by the end of November. This did not materialise, but a second letter promised that the company intended to resolve the dispute “in a just and equitable manner”. It also acknowledged “the high level of distress and anxiety” already caused.
Ten weeks after Coad’s first letter, on 24 January 2019, Associated Newspapers’ response finally landed. It was remarkable. The company denied the libel and said that it intended to defend its reporting in court. But hadn’t it already admitted in the IPSO correction that it “did not have a basis to suggest that Ms Hindley had ‘botched’ treatments”? How could it now claim its allegations were justified?
Astonishingly, the company asserted – in effect – that it had not meant what it said in the correction. It said it had “offered to publish a correction in the terms set out in order to reach a compromise” and had been “required to publish” this under its IPSO contract, but it insisted it was beyond IPSO’s remit to “determine whether Associated Newspapers Limited reasonably believed that publishing the article was in the public interest”. On these grounds, it claimed, the correction did not amount to an admission.
By this stage, Hindley’s physical and mental health, and the wellbeing of her young son, were barely above rock bottom. Business was bad, debts were continuing to mount and her credit rating had collapsed. She has suffering nightmares and frequent illnesses and her relations with her own family had deteriorated.
Staff at her son’s school, meanwhile, had noticed that a happy, enthusiastic pupil had become a poor attender, prone to minor illnesses and displays of emotion and in need of support and monitoring. He reported that he was terrified when any stranger visited his home and that he was having nightmares that his mother would be killed.
Associated Newspapers – the company of Rothermere, Dacre and Greig – had acknowledged this “high level of distress and anxiety”, but it seems to have been content to prolong it. For four months it maintained its warlike stance – among other things obliging Hindley to raise £2,500 for court fees – and then, at the moment when it was obliged to present a plausible defence (having secured two extensions), it admitted it could not.
This was an admission of the inevitable. The company had known since the IPSO process that its story could not be defended and it was obvious that any judge would balk at the idea that it could talk its way out of a published correction.
Even after this, there was no hurry as Associated Newspapers haggled over damages and costs and, to a degree, that approach paid off as Hindley eventually accepted an offer some way below what she felt she was entitled to. She wanted the affair behind her.
So, with this week’s statement in open court, ends the story of an article that should never have been written; an intrusion that should never have happened; a legal claim that should never have been contested. And the ultimate responsibility for this lies with Rothermere, Dacre and Greig – three wealthy, powerful men who think nothing of trampling over the lives of innocent people and then behaving dishonourably when called out.