In 2018, a young Thai soccer team was stuck in a cave under a mountain, 12 boys and their coach.
They walked into the cave but monsoon rains flooded it; they were assumed dead.
After 10 days, UK volunteer cave-rescue divers found them alive, 4 kilometres inside.
It took 5 hours swimming through caves in scuba gear just to reach the boys.
But the divers had an impossible task, work out some way to get the boys out.
The news of the trapped youngsters went round the world.
And Elon Musk decided he was the only person who could save the situation.
He announced to the news media that he’d developed a submarine to rescue the boys.
He flew into the rescue and brought his media circus with him.
The person leading the rescue effort was a UK volunteer diver, Vernon Unsworth.
He and the team were under enormous pressure and he told Musk to get lost.
When CNN asked Unsworth why, he said: “It had absolutely no chance of working. He had no conception of what the cave passage was like. The submarine was about two metres long and rigid, so it couldn’t go round corners. It wouldn’t have made the first 50 metres into the cave. It’s just a PR stunt. He can stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Then he and the team got on with actually trying to rescue the children.
But like Donald Trump, Elon Musk doesn’t take rejection well.
In a tweet, he referred to Vernon Unsworth as “the pedo guy”.
Unsworth’s lawyers demanded Musk retract the insult, which he was forced to do:
“My words were spoken in anger after Mr. Unsworth said several untruths & suggested I engage in a sexual act with the mini-sub. Nonetheless, his actions against me do not justify my actions against him, and for that I apologise to Mr. Unsworth and to the companies I represent as leader. The fault is mine and mine alone.”
But Musk then paid a private detective $50,000 to dig up dirt on Unsworth.
What he didn’t know was the ‘detective’ was a con-man who fed him false information.
And Musk told a reporter: “Call people in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole. He’s an old, single white guy from England who’s been living in Thailand for 30 to 40 years, mostly Pattaya Beach, until moving to Chiang Rai for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time.”
Obviously, Unsworth had no choice but to sue Musk for libel.
Musk had to admit none of the things he’d said were true. So what was his defence?
His defence was that they weren’t statements of fact they were just insults, and insults are a matter of opinion, and opinion is protected under the law as free speech.
He said, in South Africa where he was from, calling someone ‘a pedo’ was just something you’d say about “a creepy-looking old man”.
So it was okay to insult Unsworth in any way he felt like, as long as it wasn’t true.
Incredibly, that was Musk’s defence.
And incredibly, he won.
Meanwhile the rescue was successful.
Everyone on the team said Vernon Unsworth had been vital to the rescue mission.
Musk’s submarine never went near the water, it sat unused and useless outside the cave.
But perhaps it’s no surprise that Elon Musk won the court case.
The libel case pitted a man on a salary of £30k against the richest man in the world worth £222 billion.
And the difficult lesson here is that right doesn’t always win, however convinced we are about the truth of our argument.
Whoever is in the most powerful position usually wins.
So before we have an argument about the brief, the copy, the strategy, the media, who gets credit, our salary, or anything else, remember that being right may very well not be enough.
As Mark Rylance said in Bridge of Spies: “The boss may not always right, but he is always the boss.”