Sorrell Settles U.K. Libel Claim

LONDON WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell today settled a high-profile U.K. libel lawsuit, accepting about $236,000 in damages from former WPP Italy chief Marco Benatti and Marco Tinelli.

Benatti is also the founder of Italian media firm FullSix; Tinelli is its CEO.

Sorrell accused Benatti and Tinelli of generating libelous claims posted on an Internet blog, as well as disseminating an offensive j-peg image of Sorrell with Daniela Weber, WPP Italy COO, who had a past personal relationship with Sorrell.

The case, which had been under way for the last two weeks, generated worldwide headlines for its novel digital communications libel claim and its reference to Sorrell as “the mad dwarf” and Weber as “the nympho schizo.” Weber was party to Sorrell’s invasion of privacy action and was awarded $59,000.

Outside the courtroom, Sorrell said, “This was an assault on WPP and myself and the reputation that I have built up over 30 years. This anonymous and cowardly attack is not something I take lightly.” He has “no regrets” about the legal action, adding that “the damages speak for themselves.”

Neither Benatti nor Tinelli accepted liability for the libelous blog as part of the settlement, according to their lawyers in court.

On that score, Sorrell quipped, “It appears there was an alien that came into FullSix that managed to gain access to computers and buildings.”

Reflecting on the trial, Sorrell said: “The Internet is an extremely democratic force that can be used in vindictive and vengeful ways. The scale of damages and the settlement indicate that the web shouldn’t be used for those purposes.”

The two Italian executives were due to take the stand this week following an uneventful few days in the trial.

Speaking outside the High Court though an interpreter, Benatti told Adweek: “Sir Martin has left the battlefield.”

Benatti was similarly defiant regarding the three separate legal actions in which he is being sued by WPP over failure to disclose his interests in the Italian media agency Media Club, which was acquired in 2003 by WPP. “We will win all of them,” he said.

Tinelli added: “We want Martin Sorrell to leave us alone. The offer [accepted today] was already there a month ago and the trial shouldn’t have happened.” Proceedings began March 15 and were due to finish this week.

Separately, a U.K. court of appeal ruled that WPP’s claim against Benatti for breach of contract could be heard in English courts. The legal action is separate from the libel claims. WPP contends Benatti violated his contract by disguising a financial interest in Media Club, a company he recommended WPP acquire. Benatti, who is countersuing WPP in Italian courts for wrongful dismissal, had appealed against an earlier ruling that said Sorrell’s case should be heard in the U.K.