Associated and PR firm Brown Lloyd James in the dock in UK press standards inquiry

Few newspaper companies have sharper teeth than Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, which routinely terrorises its enemies including rival media organisations the BBC and Channel 4.

But the company appears to have seriously overstepped the mark in its pugnacious response to testimony before the Leveson inquiry into press standards from actor Hugh Grant (pictured). In a statement issued through its PR firm Brown Lloyd James the publisher referred to “mendacious smears,” namely Grant’s allegation that its reporters had hacked his phone.

Head of the inquiry Lord Justice Leveson warned the company against calling witnesses liars yesterday and David Sherborne, a lawyer acting for so-called victims of press intrusion, called the statement “intimidatory” and said there was “a critical distinction between a right of reply and a right of attack.”

Associated is clearly desperate to avoid being dragged belatedly into the phone-hacking scandal that has dogged News International for years now and which led to the closure of its profitable Sunday tabloid the News of the World. Associated editor-in-chief Paul Dacre has flatly denied his reporters did any such thing.

Actor Grant reckons the paper could not have found out some details about him without hacking although he admitted he had no definite proof. But Associated’s noisy over-reaction is bound to fuel the rumour mill.

And PR firm Brown Lloyd James, headed by former Daily Express editor Nick Lloyd (left), must take some of the blame. One of a PR firm’s crisis management tasks is to calm clients down when they’re foaming at the mouth, as Associated clearly is in this instance. Neither should it put its name to a statement that is clearly going to annoy a judge and make its client look like a bully.

Brown Lloyd James, which usually keeps a subterranean profile, found itself the subject of unwelcome headlines earlier this year when it emerged that it had worked for Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, an association with the late dictator it was quick to end.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.