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TV doctor Christian Jessen tells Arlene Foster libel hearing he invented ping-pong story


Television presenter Dr Christian Jessen leaves Belfast High Court

Television presenter Dr Christian Jessen leaves Belfast High Court


Television presenter Dr Christian Jessen leaves Belfast High Court

A celebrity doctor being sued for libeling Arlene Foster "invented" a scenario of playing Xbox games with his partner to hide his deteriorating mental health, the High Court has heard.

Christian Jessen said there was "artistic licence" in podcast accounts of ping-pong sessions in his apartment as he denied lying about having retreated to his parents' home.

He told the judge that he created a "persona" in episodes broadcast during a period where he failed to engage in the legal action.

Mrs Foster issued proceedings against the TV medic over a tweet making false allegations she was having an extra-marital affair.

Dr Jessen travelled to Belfast to face questioning on claims that he never received court papers sent to his London apartment and was unaware the case had reached hearing.

The defendant insists that he shut out all news in 2020 and moved back in with his mother and father because of the pandemic and his depression.

But Mr Justice McAlinden quizzed him about a series of podcasts last year which featured discussions on playing video games in lockdown and having bagpipes stored in his childhood bedroom.

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One involved Dr Jessen discovering "fantastically good exercise" could be had on his games console.

He described how virtual bowling or ping-pong with his partner was "exhausting”.

The judge pressed him on the domestic scene being portrayed in the couple's apartment.

"That's a world away from someone living an isolated life with his parents," he suggested.

"What's your explanation for the account that you gave in the podcast to the reality you are trying to paint during your evidence of a person with mental health difficulties having to retreat to his parents’ house to rebuild himself?"

Using the suicide of comedian Robin Williams to illustrate his point, Dr Jessen replied: "One of the many pernicious aspects of depression is the way one can hide it easily.

"It's the way that one can disguise one's inner feelings and carry on with life to a degree, but it's what happens when you collapse back home on your own that is the really difficult bit.

"I have been, for a long time, creating a persona to try and sell a message.

"That's what these podcasts consist of... encouraging people to do some exercise was really important during lockdown. It's important for mental health."

He maintained he had played the Xbox but accepted there were no ping-pong sessions.

"There's a lot of artistic licence that goes into these things, but if it encourages people not to worry if their kids are doing sports activities on an Xbox that this is somehow frying their brains… encouraging them to get activity, that is the aim."

When it was put to him that the gaming scenario had been an "invention", he replied: "Yeah, I don't know where I got that example from."

The Harley Street medic, best known for presenting the Channel 4 show Embarrassing Bodies, is being sued over a tweet posted on December 23, 2019.

It involved false claims about Mrs Foster and a close protection police officer.

She has described feeling humiliated by the false rumour, which came at a time when she was involved in talks to restore power-sharing.

Mrs Foster previously told the court how the tweet "trashed" her 25-year marriage, adding: "It was almost as if this cut to the very core of my life."

Even though she has already secured a default judgment, a ruling on the scale of damages was put on hold after Dr Jessen mounted a bid to enter a late defence based on claims that he was unaware of the court process.

Judicial scrutiny also centred on another podcast dealing with social isolation where Dr Jessen discussed how he and his partner regularly made video calls to friends stuck in bedsits.

Pressed on the apparent inconsistency with his account of the couple living apart at that time, he explained that it was an attempt to encourage listeners in less fortunate circumstances.

"One of the many fickle aspects of what I do is, you create a persona and, for want of a better word, a lifestyle which you play out. It's not necessarily actuality," he told the court."

"I'm always very, very conscious that you get posh plonkers like me trying to give people advice that may be a million miles apart from how they live their own lives."

Mr Justice McAlinden put to him: "In essence, you were constructing a reality which didn't exist in an attempt to provide a good example for others to follow suit."

Agreeing with that assessment, Dr Jessen said: "That's probably a slightly more grand way of putting it than was the thought process behind it, but yes."

In a further podcast about the importance of music, Dr Jessen told how bagpipes that he once played were now stored in a cupboard in his old bedroom, which has since converted into an office.

With an old teacher having advised to seal the pipes with honey, he recalled his mother noticing a smell like a dead mouse which turned out to be the stored instrument.

According to the judge, it gave the impression that Dr Jessen was not living at the family home.

"If your bedroom is converted into an office, where are you staying?" he asked.

Referring to the bagpipe story as an "old favourite", the medic explained that he had no intention of publicising his move back in with his mother and father.

"I haven't had a bedroom in my parent's house in a long time. What they have is a guest room with a bathroom and a living area, and that's where I was staying," he said.

"The room my mother uses as an office which was my childhood bedroom is still referred to as ‘Christian's room’ and always will be. Hence why that story consists of that."

Dr Jessen also denied that posting photos on Twitter in January about graffiti apparently appearing overnight near his home undermined his account of having relocated.

Explaining that the images would have been sent to him, he told the court his intention was to maintain a public persona of "business as usual".

During a hearing on his the doctor’s credibility, defence counsel Gavin Millar QC claimed there was no evidence that his client had lied.

But Mr Justice McAlinden said it was hard to accept the version of events that an envelope containing legal documents dropped at his apartment was lost.

"There's been a massive failure in recollection, there's been a mysterious removal of an envelope from behind a door, or the more simple and straightforward explanation is that this court is being hoodwinked in terms of what actually happened to that particular envelope," the judge said.

Mr Millar maintained: "His case is that he didn't get access because he wasn't in the flat at the time."

Later, the barrister described Dr Jessen's evidence as "cogent and coherent", with no attempt at wild speculation.

"It's perfectly plausible that he would pick up a photograph and retweet it," he added.

However, David Ringland QC, for Mrs Foster, delivered a scathing assessment of the defendant's reliability.

"This is in the context of a person who gave evidence under oath that he was quite content to disgracefully defame the First Minister on the strength of rumours," he insisted.

Mr Ringland rejected any suggested failure by process servers or Royal Mail to properly deliver papers to Dr Jessen's address.

Instead, he argued, the medic compounded his problems by explanations given in the witness box.

"This idea [is] that someone like him in the media, an entertainer, no less — albeit it's difficult to see where the entertainment arises in any of these podcasts — is entitled to be dishonest because that's apparently an entertainer's licence,” he said.

"Just because he will be guilty of being quite dishonest in what he's describing for a good reason, that is in some shape or form a different type of dishonesty and could not be used in any shape or form to demonstrate a propensity [to lie]. That is really stretching credibility to breaking point and beyond."

Mr Ringland contended that the level of detail Dr Jessen went into about playing ping-pong with his partner in their apartment demonstrated that had been the real situation.

"This idea of a construct to entertain and to help people with their health doesn't stand any form of examination," counsel said.

"He had to come up with some form of different interpretation. The obvious interpretation is the one that anybody would come to: namely, he's in a small space, almost certainly an apartment, living with his partner and conducting themselves in the way described there.

"He had to try and find a way out of that, in the same way he had to try and find round the photographs which depict locations a very short distance away from his home and a very lengthy distance away from the place he said he was."

Reserving judgment, Mr Justice McAlinden confirmed he would rule first on the credibility of Dr Jessen's account about the serving of legal papers.

He pledged: "I will do my best to get it done as soon as possible."

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