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Defamation Law: Newspaper Baron Loses "Wimp" Libel Case

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Last Thursday, Richard Desmond, owner of the Express and Star newspapers, lost a highly-publicised defamation action against Tom Bower.

What is defamation?

Defamation occurs when a person makes a statement about another that damages their reputation.  The tort has two prongs: "libel" and "slander."  Libel is defaming somebody in print; while slander is spoken defamation.

The alleged libel

Desmond was unhappy about a section in Bower's book Conrad & Lady Black: Dancing On the Edge:

"Rumours of a crisis [within Conrad Black's firm Hollinger] reached Richard Desmond ...

Desmond shared a printing plant with the Telegraph, which had led to an argument and a court case two years earlier between himself and Black.  At the end of the trial the judge ... declared Desmond's evidence ... unreliable and found in Black's favour. 

Now Desmond ordered the ... Express to report that Hollinger was '"facing its biggest crisis ever" after a credit facility was cancelled by its bankers'. 

Black was horrified ... To protect himself and suppress the truth, he sued Desmond and the Express for libel.  'There is no cash crisis, nor any prospect of one,' he said in a short statement. 

To rapidly defuse the row, a mediator was appointed and Black and Desmond were told to go into a room and hammer out a deal ...

[Eventually] a settlement was agreed, accepting Black's insistence that there was no financial crisis. 

Victory against Desmond, a tough operator, vindicated Black's remorseless pursuit of challengers.  Grinding his critics into the dust had never failed."

Desmond attached the following meaning to the passage

"[Desmond] ordered the ... Express ... run a ... damaging story about ... Black's (and Hollinger's) financial dealings, wholly indifferent as to whether the story was ... true or false, in a vindictive and completely unjustified attempt to damage ... Black's reputation ...

[D]espite his reputation for being a tough businessman and the fact that the story was actually true, [Desmond] allowed himself to be ground into the dust ... [and] accept[ed] an abject and humiliating settlement."

Bower responded to Desmond's complaint (that, inter alia, the passage made him look like a "wimp") by ascribing this meaning to the passage:

"[Desmond] climbed down ... [during] mediation ... [and] allowed himself to be taken in by ... Black's assurances of the financial health of Hollinger and submitted his newspaper to a public settlement that [vindicated Black]..."

Verdict

The jury decided Bower did not defame Desmond, which leaves Desmond with an estimated legal bill of £1.25 million. 

Moreover, later this year, Bower intends to publish a biography about Desmond, called "Rough Trader."  He told The Guardian that the book is "the most devastating story of a businessman I have ever written." 

This does not bode well for Desmond, particularly in light of Bower's previous highly-critical biographies of Black, Tiny Rowland, Robert Maxwell, etc.

** Additional Information & Advice **

If you believe you have been the victim of libel or slander, you may want to speak with a solicitor who specialises in defamation law.  You can be for free via solicitor matching services, which can also help you to understand the best course of action for your situation and whether you are ready to hire a solicitor.

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