Appeal court rejects 'UVF godfather's' complaints against paper
A court's decision to dismiss an appeal by a man portrayed in a newspaper as a UVF godfather has been hailed as a boost for the media's role as a public watchdog.
Senior judges upheld a High Court ruling that a series of Sunday World articles on Colin Fulton involved responsible journalism and a robust expression of Press freedom, rejecting his appeal against being denied damages for alleged harassment.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said: "We accept that there is a public interest in examining allegations of criminal behaviour by paramilitaries linked to the UVF in the south Belfast area with a view to publication."
Fulton, a 41-year-old PUP representative, denies ever being a member of the UVF or any other outlawed grouping.
He sued over 28 newspaper stories between August 2012 and January 2014, insisting they contained false claims about him which put his life at increased risk from dissident republicans.
The articles variously described him as a UVF gangster, godfather, stool pigeon and "sex torture boss".
Other allegations which he emphatically denied included:
• Links to punishment attacks on three teenage boys, one of whom had a Taser used on his private parts.
• Involvement in the guns trade and running a drinking den near his home in the Village area.
• Collaborating with Russian criminals as part of a turf war.
• Going on six holidays in 2013.
• Being known by the nickname "Meerkat", insisting the first time the term came to his attention was by reading it in the Sunday World.
Giving evidence at the original trial, Fulton told of receiving at least six separate warnings from police that he was under threat - four of them coming after the Sunday World began claiming he had a UVF role.
At first he also claimed the PUP had no real link to the paramilitary grouping, before accepting the party gave guidance to it.
Cross-examined about the flying of a UVF flag outside his home in 2012 - the only one on his street - Fulton said it was to mark the centenary of the original organisation, founded before the First World War.
Sunday World's former Northern Editor Jim McDowell and his successor Richard Sullivan both testified about the newspaper's commitment to exposing criminals and the personal cost through being attacked and followed.
Fulton mounted an appeal after a High Court judge threw out his harassment claim, finding that he had given inconsistent, contradictory and unconvincing evidence.
But Sir Declan, sitting with Lord Justices Weatherup and Weir, ruled that it was an entirely appropriate role for the Press to bring allegations of serious wrongdoing to the public attention - as long as it acts responsibly. "The role of the Press in exposing alleged wrongdoing is all the more important where the PSNI accepts that there is a problem of paramilitary criminality but is unable to take effective steps to stop it," he said.
Backing a finding that the journalists had checked and rechecked their sources before publication, the Lord Chief Justice pointed out that Fulton's association with other named alleged UVF members was consistent with information supplied.
"The fact that his house was the only house in his street from which a UVF flag hung... supports the inference that the appellant publicly demonstrated his adherence to the UVF in a range of different ways," he said. "It is frankly astonishing that it took so long before any issue about the publication of these articles was taken with the respondent newspaper and it is of some note that the learned trial judge formed the view that the appellant relished his notoriety."
Outside court the Sunday World journalists described the outcome as a victory for their role as a public watchdog.
Mr Sullivan said: "This is a strong vindication of the freedom of the Press and its role in investigating criminal activities in the communities we represent and live in."
Olivia O'Kane, who heads the media department in Carson McDowell solicitors, acting for Independent News and Media, the publishers of the Sunday World, welcomed the ruling. "The judgment of Lord Justice Gillen at the interim injunction application stage, the judgment of Lord Justice Deeny at the High Court trial and finally the judgment of Lord Chief Justice Morgan and the Court of Appeal panel have all made it clear that freedom of expression exercised by responsible journalists acting in good faith and reporting about matters of public interest shall be protected by our courts," she said.
"The decision, in protecting investigative journalism, acknowledges the importance of responsible journalism and of the important role of the Sunday World journalists in exposing serious criminality.
"The decision upholds the law and reminds us that good faith responsible journalism reporting upon matters of public importance will be protected in law.
"When the media act as public watchdog of our communities the courts have a duty to protect the media exercising that public watchdog function, and today's judgment upholds this important legal principle."