TWO OF Welsh rugby’s most senior figures have accused Rebecca Television of defamation.
Lawyers acting for WRU chairman David Pickering and chief executive Roger Lewis claim an investigation into censorship at ITV Wales libelled them.
They say the article accuses them of acting to prevent a documentary about Pickering’s financial affairs from being broadcast back in 2006.
They demand a retraction and an unreserved apology.
Rebecca Television rejects these allegations. There will be no apology.
MORE THAN a year after it was first published, WRU officials David Pickering and Roger Lewis have finally responded to the Rebecca Television article A Licence To Censor.
Along with the WRU’s communications chief John Williams, they have instructed solicitors to take action against the website.
In a four page letter, the Cardiff law-firm Hugh James say the three men consider the entire article to be defamatory.
The article revealed that an ITV Wales This Week programme into the personal financial affairs of WRU chairman David Pickering was axed in May 2006 on the orders of then programme controller Elis Owen.
At the time Roger Lewis was ITV Wales’ managing director and John Williams was head of news.
Lewis was appointed chief executive of the WRU in September 2006.
Williams became head of communications at the Union in December 2006.
Hugh James now claim that A Licence To Censor also means “there were strong grounds to suspect that Mr Pickering caused ITV Wales to censor the channel’s planned coverage of his financial affairs …”.
Their letter also states that the investigation also means that “there were strong grounds to suspect that Mr Lewis and Mr Williams together helped to suppress the Pickering programme on a corrupt basis” partly because “each man either had obtained or hoped to obtain senior and lucrative employment with the WRU.”
“Our clients require you to withdraw these allegations and to apologise for them unreservedly …”
In his reply, sent to Hugh James today, Rebecca Television editor Paddy French rejected the claims — and declined to offer an apology.
“The article A Licence To Censor was a forceful indictment of censorship at ITV Wales in 2006,” wrote French, “but it criticised only one individual — Elis Owen.”
“And, while it condemned him for censoring a Wales This Week programme — for which I was the producer — it was quite specific about what he’d done wrong.”
“At the time I directly accused Owen of ‘noble cause corruption’ — censoring the programme for what he thought was the morally justifiable reason of protecting the commercial interests of ITV Wales.”
“There was no question that he acted to advance his own personal interests. And there was no suggestion that he acted as a result of pressure from anyone else.”
“The article also makes it clear that Roger Lewis rang Bruce Kennedy, the executive in charge of Wales This Week, to make it clear he was not interfering in the editorial process.”
“It follows that, if Elis Owen acted alone and Roger Lewis took no part in the proceedings, that David Pickering can have had no say in the fate of the programme.”
“Consequently, the article cannot carry the meaning that Pickering, Lewis and Williams suggest.”
“As a result, Rebecca Television has no need to apologise to the three men.”
DAVID PICKERING also claimed that the article defamed him by saying he was in “financial disarray”.
Rebecca Television accepts the article makes this claim but believes it is factually accurate.
Pickering had two county court judgments against him and many of the companies he was involved with had gone bust owing millions of pounds in unpaid VAT and tax.
Pickering’s lawyers also dispute that Pickering misled the media over the true state of his business activities.
They seize on one passage in A Licence To Censor.
The article contains these three paragraphs:
“Thirteen months later, in July 2005, another five companies went under with debts of nearly £5 million.”
“This time Pickering told the Western Mail that “the great majority of the money was owed to associated companies and not third parties.”
“This was untrue. The five companies owed £2.8 million in unpaid tax and VAT.”
This summary is misleading — and conceals a more complicated picture.
Pickering’s comment was made in May 2006 in an article about the failure of a surviving company called R & R Group to submit accounts on time.
Pickering said that although the company “had a substantial deficit, the great majority of the money owed was to associated companies, and not third parties.”
However, Pickering did not acknowledge that part of R & R Group’s problems were caused by difficulties at its subsidiaries.
Two of these R & R Group subsidiaries had gone bust in June 2004 with massive losses.
They had chalked up combined debts of nearly £3 million of which close to £1.4 million was accounted for in unpaid VAT and tax.
In July 2004, in a Western Mail article about the failure of other companies to file accounts on time, Pickering stated: “I’m involved in eight or nine companies and all of them are up and running.”
“They are all in different cycles, but there are no problems.”
A year later five of these companies went under with debts of nearly £5 million of which unpaid tax and VAT accounted for £2.8 million.
“Rebecca Television will revise this passage of A Licence To Censor to make it clearer” French wrote to Pickering’s solicitors, “but we stand by the claim that he did not give an accurate picture of his financial affairs to the media.”
ANOTHER extraordinary claim made by lawyers acting for the three men is that the proposed 2006 Wales This Week programme was not editorially sound.
They insist “there was a consensus that it lacked interest and importance”.
The “information about Mr Pickering’s financial affairs was largely old news …” and “there was no evidence of any wrongdoing by him”.
“A Licence To Censor does not accuse Pickering of any wrongdoing,” French told the lawyers, “but the claim that the information about his financial affairs was largely old news is nonsense.
“ITV’s chief news reporter Andy Collinson and the man in charge of Wales This Week, Bruce Kennedy — as well as myself — were all convinced it was a valid programme.”
“The crashes of 2004 and 2005 were not reported by national media in Wales and Andy Collinson’s discovery of the substantial county judgments was totally unknown.”
“The poor state of the remaining companies was not generally appreciated.”
The lawyers also say that John Williams now denies that he ever changed his mind about the programme.
A Licence To Censor stated that Williams, who was head of news at the time, had been persuaded by the Wales This Week analysis of Pickering’s plight:
“At the end of the presentation, John Williams — who had not been sure there was a story up to that point — said he was convinced.”
“He was shocked at the amount of money Pickering’s companies had lost and he was happy to run a news item on the Friday.”
In April 2012 Rebecca Television sent John Williams an outline of the article.
It included these words: “JW [John Williams] said he was convinced now: he had no idea the debts were so great …”
He did not respond to this email.
When the article was published later that month, he did not take advantage of the Rebecca Television “right of reply” and “corrections” facilities.
Again, the original article will be amended to include his denial.
The article will also be amended to take account of other points made by the three men.
They do not affect the overall thrust of the article.
Rebecca Television stands by it.
© Rebecca Television 2013
CORRECTIONS Please let us know if there are any mistakes in this article — we’ll correct as soon as possible.
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