An extraordinary story is unfolding on the personal blog of Steve Pankhurst, respected London angel investor and the founder of Friends Reunited, which was sold to ITV in 2005 for £120 million. Pankhurst has been something of a reclusive figure since selling his business, rarely discussing it in public, but he says he “suddenly felt compelled to start blogging about it” after an escalation of hostilities by “a group of individuals who will not leave me alone”.
His antagonists claim that Pankhurst stole the idea for Friends Reunited and that since 2000 he has “lied repeatedly” about the history of the company and has “covered up” their involvement. Pankhurst has now taken to the internet to strenuously deny their claims, which are the result of a 12-year “investigation”. According to Pankhurst, his accusers have compiled a 120-page dossier on his and his wife Julie’s duplicity and offered a reward of £250,000 for information that links Pankhurst to a developer they say passed on their idea.
His accusers have threatened to set up a website to advertise the reward, to establish a social media campaign to reach 20,000 students and to launch a national media campaign to discredit Pankhurst and his wife Julie, with whom he set up Friends Reunited. Pankhurst alleges that the group has hired “at least four” private investigators to follow him and his family and to harass Pankhurst’s friends, even calling at and insinuating themselves into their houses.
“In essence,” writes Pankhurst in the second of an epic and ongoing series of blog posts, “they claim the whole story of Friends Reunited from 1999 to early 2001 is a lie. They claim that since then we have been involved in a massive cover up [and that] nearly everyone associated with FR is in on this. They claim we did not actually launch till late 2000. They claim that we know the developer they initially engaged to write their site. They claim that our site idea came directly from their developer.
“They claim that we somehow backdated our domain registration, and were in collusion with the first ISP we used (and, it appears, with Nominet too) to falsely backdate our story.”
If that last claim sounds outlandish, it is nothing compared to the details Pankhurst reveals in later posts. Since 2005, when his accusers first wrote to the Pankhurst family and were responded to by Julie, at whose prompting Friends Reunited had initially been created (her husband and his friend Jason Porter were responsible for building the first version, but the site was originally Julie Pankhurst’s idea), the family has been bombarded with threats and allegations.
The 2005 letter was particularly troubling because it arrived just as the company entered a period of due diligence, prior to its sale to ITV. A journalist from the Times called the family, saying he had received a dossier alleging a “cover-up”, but no story appeared. And Pankhurst heard nothing more for another seven years – until May of this year, when he received a letter from a private investigator. He also became aware of a second private investigator who had called his business partner’s ex-wife, fishing for information that might support the accusers’ story.
At the request of one of the investigators, the Pankhursts agreed to meet with their accusers, whose identities the family has so far declined to reveal. The meeting was a disaster: despite presenting evidence of the company’s founding and hosting arrangements and a long explanation by Julie of how she came up with the idea for Friends Reunited, the group demanded more and more elaborate forms of proof.
During the summer, a second private investigator’s letter arrived. The Pankhursts, disgusted by the intrusive tactics used by their antagonists, ignored it. Evidently, that ruffled feathers: an email that reads like a transparent attempt at blackmail arrived shortly afterwards:
I have attached a (moderated) copy of a 21 page summary of events surrounding my 12 year investigation into the launch of your website. I’d like to offer you 36 hours to preview the summary, just in case you have anything new to add, or perhaps you might like to reconsider some of your earlier comments?
In a few days I will have emigrated from the UK so I have had to use my youngest sons’s e-mail address. Once I am overseas, the Investigation will continue in the care of my 2 sons who, after a continued research, aim to find the social connection with the Developer. At the same time, an extensive national marketing campaign will be initiated by them, in the following order:
1. The summary will be released by my 2 sons, to 20,000 students at their respective Universities, initiating a viral marketing campaign.
2. Then it will appear on a new and bespoke “Reward for Information” website, with a £250k reward offered for information.
3. After a few weeks, the full findings will be shared with national media.
4. A book is being commissioned, by a recognised UK author (family friend) pending the final outcomes of the investigation.
The summary has been put together from facts received over 12 years of detailed investigation. The facts are then supported by my own, personal observations; even if you find them distasteful, there is nothing libellous or illegal.
The Kernel’s legal team commented today: “This email was clearly not sent from a legal professional, nor does it show any indication of familiarity with law relevant to the dispute. I would be very surprised if the author had sought advice before sending it. The bullet points are at least distasteful; at most potentially criminal exaction. A judge would likely take a harsh view of such an email should it be produced in court.”
Pankhurst was incensed, feeling “threatened”. He reports that the 21-page summary contains a multitude of libellous claims and unwittingly reveals what Pankhurst calls “illegal methods” of obtaining information which is in any case not supportive of the group’s arguments: “following people; recording my conversations, turning up at friends’ houses and hassling them and then calling them liars; phoning friends and harassing them; warping things we said to suit their agenda; the use of a Fraud Squad officer to investigate us; use of Home Office officials, senior police officers, legal experts, solicitors…”
(In 2005, the group had written to Pankhurst promising not to “pester” his family again. But repeated emails to Pankhurst’s lawyers in the last couple of months, all, inexplicably and irregularly, sent from anonymous addresses, somewhat give the lie to that claim.)
Pankhurst says that even after this extraordinary twelve-year “investigation”, the evidence of a connection between him and the developer his accusers claim he pilfered the idea from is non-existent. He has in response posted a series of screenshots and factual detail in support of the story of Friends Reunited as we all know it, on the timeline media reports of the time substantiate.
Pankhurst and his wife have been called “liars” and now worry their reputations will be permanently besmirched by a disingenuous smear campaign in the press and via social media, despite the fact that no evidence corroborating their accuser’s account of the founding of Friends Reunited has ever been produced. In communications riddled with errors, the group has terrorised the Pankhurst family, prompting expensive consultation with lawyers and aborted family holidays.
Pankhurst refused to hand over a copy of the dossier and would not reveal the names of his accusers when asked by The Kernel. But should his attackers make good on their threats, it is likely that their identities will become public very quickly. That’s assuming their story is anything more than a feverish, jealous fantasy, which, on the basis of the evidence The Kernel has seen, would appear to be the most likely explanation for this sorry tale of harassment and blackmail.