South Belfast man loses appeal over damages after alleged UVF links exposed
A south Belfast man portrayed in a newspaper as an Ulster Volunteer Force godfather has lost his appeal against being denied damages for alleged harassment.
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.
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."
Mr Fulton, a 41-year-old Progressive Unionist Party 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.
Giving evidence at the original trial, Mr Fulton told of receiving at least six separate warnings from police that he is under threat - four of them coming after the Sunday World began claiming he has 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 - Mr Fulton said it was to mark the centenary of the original organisation founded before the First World War.
The 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.
Mr 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.
It is heartening to see the Court of Appeal stand up for robust investigative journalism, which plays a key role in any democratic society. Edward McCann, INM Group Managing Editor
Backing a finding that the journalists had checked and rechecked their sources before publication, the Lord Chief Justice pointed out that Mr 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 it's role in investigating criminal activities in the communities we represent and live in."
Edward McCann, Group Managing Editor of Sunday World publisher INM, said: "The Sunday World has a justified reputation for fearlessly exposing paramilitary activities. In the original trial, both former Northern Editor Jim McDowell and Belfast Bureau Chief Richard Sullivan testified as to the threats they have faced. It is heartening to see the Court of Appeal stand up for robust investigative journalism, which plays a key role in any democratic society.
"It is also worth noting that Fulton’s case at both the High Court and Court of Appeal were funded by the taxpayer. With the newspaper industry in general facing challenges to traditional revenue streams, cases like this are a further threat to investigative journalism. We may have won in this instance but it’s more than likely that we will still have significant legal costs."
Belfast Telegraph Digital