Hardest Word

How Melania Trump Got the Daily Mail to Say ‘Sorry'

The Mail not just apologized to Melania Trump in court on Wednesday, it did so on MailOnline’s front page. The scandal sheet is rarely so chastened.

Saul Loeb

The Daily Mail rarely says sorry. But on Wednesday, its apology to Melania Trump occupied the pole position on MailOnline’s homepage.

In London’s Royal Courts of Justice, the Mail agreed to pay damages, understood to be less than $3 million according to the Guardian, and issue an apology to the first lady to settle two libel suits, bought in the U.K. and the U.S., over the British tabloid’s “false and defamatory claims about [Mrs. Trump] which questioned the nature of her work as a professional model and republished allegations that she provided services beyond simply modeling.”

The story hit a nerve with Mrs. Trump, who reached a settlement with the Mail, a lawyer from whose parent company apologized to Mrs. Trump, telling the court that the story’s claims are “untrue and we retract and withdraw them.” There was an attendant apology “for any distress that our publication caused.”

This kind of sensational clickbait has been MailOnline’s bread and butter ever since it launched as the British rag’s widely successful Internet arm in 2010. (Today, it the world’s most-read English news website, attracting more than 220 million global visitors per month.)

Given the publication’s fondness for printing unsubstantiated rumors and the reliable display of celebrity wardrobe malfunctions on its “sidebar of shame,” you’d think high-profile libel settlements, retractions, and apologies would be more easily—and more frequently—extracted from the Daily Mail.

But before Wednesday, the media company hadn’t made such a big show of contrition since 2014, when it settled a defamation suit filed by J.K. Rowling over an article alleging she’d written a dishonest “sob story” on the website of a single parents’ charity.

In addition to paying undisclosed damages and legal fees, MailOnline conceded Rowling’s charity article “did not contain any false claims” and apologized for publishing “any contrary suggestion.”

Several months later, MailOnline also apologized to George Clooney for running an “inaccurate” story about his then-fiancée, Amal Alamuddin, though the website insisted its original report was “supplied in good faith by a reputable and trusted freelance journalist.”

Clooney had called the story “completely fabricated,” prompting MailOnline to modify it and later take it down.

While Clooney never took legal action, he may have threatened it to provoke a retraction. “If a lawsuit isn’t filed you can’t necessarily tell whether an article is retracted because the publication thinks it’s the right thing to do or because doing so makes them less likely to be sued,” George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York, told The Daily Beast.

Elton John, actress Diana Rigg, and Tony Blair’s former lifestyle coach are among a handful of other stars and public figures who have won libel suits against the Daily Mail in the past 10 years.

It’s worth noting that the U.K.’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws make these cases easier to win in Britain than in the U.S., where speech is protected by the First Amendment and the “actual malice” legal standard makes certain defamation cases harder to prove (the standard does not exist in the U.K.).

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President Trump knows this well. When asked if there was “too much protection allowed in the First Amendment” during an interview with CBS News last October, Trump suggested he’d be in favor of British libel laws being reintroduced in the U.S. “In England you have a good chance of winning,” he said. “And deals are made and apologies are made. Over here they don’t have to apologize.”

Indeed, Mrs. Trump’s recent libel case may not have been victorious had the charges been levied against an American publication. Legal experts say this may explain why she sued in London in addition to New York.

“Most of the evidence was going to be found either in America or in Slovenia, where she comes from, so there was no good reason for her to sue in London other than the fact that it’s quite advantageous for claimants to sue in the U.K.,” said Mark Stephens, a British attorney specializing in media and libel law, who noted that so-called libel tourism has become increasingly common in recent years. “We’ve had an influx of corrupt businessmen flying into London to launder their reputations because it’s almost impossible to lose a libel suit here,” Stephens added. “[London] is an epicenter of libel cases.”

While Mrs. Trump originally sought a massive $150 million in damages, the Financial Times reported the total settlement in the case was as low as $3 million, including legal fees.

Despite its reputation as a conservative, pro-Brexit British publication, the Daily Mail and MailOnline are mostly nonpartisan when it comes to targeting celebrities and public figures.

There have been exceptions, of course, including an Election Day “Exclusive” featuring old family photos of a younger Donald Trump “snuggling with his babies, changing a diaper… showing his softer side.”

The story’s headlining image was Trump reclining in bed in a bathrobe, propped up on his elbow like a pin-up.

MailOnline’s legions of readers are not trawling the site for journalistic nuance. They come for its prurient celebrity gossip, moralizing columns, lurid news, and viral memes.

They stay for the schadenfreude.