Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Jury finds for Denis O'Brien and awards against the Irish Daily Mail

Denis O'Brien
Denis O'Brien

The Irish Daily Mail newspaper defamed businessman Denis O'Brien in a factually inaccurate column, a jury found.

Mr O'Brien was awarded €150,000 by the jury of six men and six women after nearly three hours' deliberation, after it heard seven days of evidence in the High Court.

The article, written by reporter Paul Drury (55) and published on January 22, 2010, shortly after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, was headlined: 'Moriarty is about to report, no wonder Denis O'Brien is acting the saint in stricken Haiti'.

The jury agreed the article meant Mr O'Brien's involvement in the earthquake relief was a hypocritical act primarily motivated by self-interest and was an "ingenious feint".

It found the words in the article did represent the honest opinion of the defendants but did not find this opinion was based on allegations of fact proved to be true or that they may have been known, or might reasonably be expected to have been known, by readers of the article. The jury also found that the opinion expressed was not a matter of public interest.

It assessed damages at €150,000 but found aggravated damages should not be awarded. About 10 minutes earlier, the jury had returned to court to ask the judge for a "clear definition" of what aggravated damages were.

Afterwards, Mr O'Brien said the case vindicated his stand and was a win for his colleagues in Digicel in Haiti.

Mr O'Brien said he was "delighted", felt vindicated and was "obviously very pleased at the result".

Asked about contrast between this €150,000 award and a previous High Court libel award to him of 750,000 against Mirror Group Newspapers, he said: "We live in different times."

"People have freedom of expression but also people have the right to their good name as well. That's what this case has all been about," he said.

A lawyer for the 'Mail' said it may consider an appeal.

During the case, Mr O'Brien (54) claimed the article meant his involvement in the Haiti relief effort was a hypocritical act and an attempt to deflect attention from the Moriarty Tribunal report, which contained findings adverse to him but which he strongly disputes.

The claims were denied by the publishers of the 'Mail' titles, Associated Newspapers, by the Irish editor-in-chief at the time of the publication, Paul Field, and by Mr Drury, who said it was a piece of opinion honestly held on a matter of public interest.

Mr O'Brien told the court the article was nasty, spiteful and grubby and caused damage to his good name and reputation. It was poorly researched and the suggestion that he was trying to deflect attention from the Moriarty Tribunal could not be further from the truth.

In his speech to the jury, Paul O'Higgins, for Mr O'Brien, said the facts in this case were of paramount importance and whether or not it (the jury) believed some of the particular answers they heard from witnesses were true.

He also told the jury that Mr Drury had failed to check his facts. "Maybe he did not want to know, maybe it was much more convenient to give a false impression but the clear message was that Denis O'Brien was hanging around, jumping up and down behind the reporter and hoping to be seen and that is what he was meant to have been doing during a humanitarian disaster which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands."

It was a case about freedom of expression but the fact that Mr O'Brien is wealthy was not relevant. Papers like the 'Mail', with an annual turnover of €2bn, can afford to fight cases like this and write off the bill for them against their taxes, he said.

In his closing address to the jury yesterday, Oisin Quinn for the 'Mail' stressed to the jury the importance of the case.

"What you do will resound outside this courtroom," he said. "We want you to stand up for the right of someone like Paul Drury to express his view.

"You don't have to agree he was right, but that he had a right to say it," he added.

There was a simple truth at the heart of this case and that was the importance of allowing people to express their opinion and having the courage to give their opinion when they are up against somebody important, counsel said.

The 'Mail' was not asking the jury to judge Mr O'Brien or Mr Drury nor his motives for what he wrote. What was being sought was the jury to "stand up for what is right" and for the right of Mr Drury to express his view.

After the award, solicitor for the 'Daily Mail' Michael Kealey said the newspaper was "extremely disappointed" with the verdict and would consider mounting an appeal.

The paper is owned by the UK-based Daily Mail.

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