Belfast Telegraph

Paper calls in top barrister to challenge libel award

By Alan Erwin

A newspaper has brought in a top media barrister in a bid to overturn a £50,000 libel award to a Co Down businessman referred to as a "Scrooge".

London-based Gavin Millar QC appeared before the Court of Appeal to head up the Sunday World's challenge to the finding in favour of Gordon Coulter.

Earlier this year, Mr Coulter (84) won his action over a report published after his hotel went into administration in December 2014.

He sued the Sunday World, claiming it had portrayed him as callously discharging staff during a temporary closure of the Kilmorey Arms in Kilkeel. In August, a High Court judge awarded him £50,000 in damages.

Mr Justice Stephens held it was a serious libel of a businessman who had no other option but to put the company into administration.

Proceedings were issued after an article claimed sacked workers at the 175-year-old hotel were left with no pay.

It stated that Mr Coulter, a former shareholder in the Kilmorey Arms, Kilkeel's only hotel, "has been branded a Scrooge for putting his staff on the street a week before Christmas".

His lawyers argued the description meant he had money but out of meanness was not prepared to spend it to save jobs at the hotel, which has since reopened under new ownership.

As part of its defence, the Sunday World denied it was libellous to refer to someone as a Scrooge.

Launching the newspaper's appeal, Mr Millar argued that the plaintiff must identify a single defamatory meaning.

Instead, he submitted, a "multi-faceted and shifting" list was presented, with the trial judge also advancing another three potential meanings.

Other grounds of appeal centred on responsible journalism and the reportage of comment made by a hotel cleaner.

"Both the crying cleaner and the words 'a Scrooge' which took such a centre stage in this trial are in quotes attributed to the distraught employee," Mr Millar told the three-judge panel.

Pressed by Lord Justice Gillen on any gratuitous likening of someone to the fictional Dickens' character, the barrister insisted it was comment with context. "The reason why a member of staff is saying people in the town are calling him a Scrooge is apparent from the article," he added.

During evidence at the original trial, Mr Coulter said he was "gutted" by the article he described as heartbreaking and unjustified given his lifetime of work in the local community.

He claimed it had been the worst day of his life when he read it.

The appeal continues.

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