Friday 28 October 2016

Call for reform as 'perverse' €900k damages award against 'Sunday World' overturned

Tim Healy

Published 19/10/2015 | 14:24

Martin McDonagh, of Cranmore Drive, Sligo. Photo: Courtpix
Martin McDonagh, of Cranmore Drive, Sligo. Photo: Courtpix

A €900,000 damages award against a newspaper which truthfully described a man as a drug dealer was described as "perverse" by the Court of Appeal.

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The three-judge court today unanimously overturned the 2008 award to Martin McDonagh.

It arose out of a High Court jury finding that Mr McDonagh was libelled in a Sunday World article describing him as a "Traveller drug king" following the seizure by gardai of IR£500,000 worth of cannabis and amphetamines in August, 1999, in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo.

The newspaper had appealed against the award and Mr McDonagh was paid €90,000 pending the appeal.

In a statement this evening Colm MacGinty, the Editor of Sunday World, said:

"The Court of Appeal decision today is welcomed by the Sunday World, not only for itself, but for all media organisations and outlets in Ireland.

"The Court’s finding that a verdict which was handed down by a jury almost seven and a half years ago, was, in essence, perverse, highlights the entirely unsatisfactory system of dealing with claims involving the press and media.

"The Court recognised that the Sunday World, as with any newspaper, had and has a constitutional right to publish the information that Martin McDonagh was a drug dealer. 

"Over the past eight years, following the decision of the jury which has now been overturned, that meant that this constitutional right had been denied with potentially severe and serious consequences if the award of damages of €900,000 stood.

"The fallout from that flawed verdict was not limited simply to this story or this newspaper.  It was a threat to the fundamental constitutional rights of press freedom and free speech."

He added:

"This case demonstrates the total failure of the political system to deal with the complex defamation laws of Ireland which are outdated, overly complex and among the harshest in Europe.

"The laws must be reformed as a matter of urgency - not least that jury trials be dispensed with as they have been in the rest of Europe and that the delays and costs of dealing with claims involving media be reduced and to avoid excessive threats to the freedom of the press."

Costs and other matters will be dealt with when the case returns to the appeal court on November 16.

The appeal court allowed the appeal of the newspaper against the entirety of the verdict.

It found an allegation of drug dealing was true and dismissed that part of his claim.  However, it found there should be a re-trial in relation to a second allegation of loan sharking.

Mr Justice Gerard Hogan, giving the appeal court judgment, said it was clear the jury verdict, so far as it concerned the drug dealing allegation, cannot be allowed stand.

"Viewed objectively, the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the conclusion the plaintiff (McDonagh) was, indeed, a drug dealer associated with the drugs seizure in Tubercurry", he said.

If the allegation was correct, he said, the newspaper had a constitutional right to publish and that right cannot be compromised by a jury verdict "which was, in essence, perverse".

The evidence in relation to the loan sharking allegation was much more limited, he said.  It might have been open to a properly instructed jury to find for Mr McDonagh on that allegation and a new trial was ordered, he said.

Mr McDonagh (51), Cranmore Drive, Sligo, sued over an article published on September 5, 1999, describing him as a "Traveller drug king". 

It was published mid-way through his seven day detention for questioning in connection with the Tubbercurry seizure.

Mr McDonagh, who has always denied involvement in drugs, was ultimately released without charge.

The newspaper denied libel and pleaded justification and that the contents of the article were true.

The jury found the newspaper had failed to prove Mr McDonagh was a drug dealer and a loan shark but had proven he was a tax evader and a criminal.

Earlier in his judgment, Mr Justice Hogan said this case presented once again the question of the appropriate balance to be struck between two fundamental values, the right to one's good name (Article 40.3.2) and freedom of expression (Art 40.6.1.i).

The language of Article 40.6.1 ascribes a high value to the discussion by the media of matters concerning serious criminality, he said. 

The constitutional right to freedom of expression does not permit the media to publish defamatory material as this would breach the proper balance to be struck between these two potentially competing rights.

This was relevant to the question of the perversity of the jury verdict.

If it is clear the article was true in substance and fact, then the media's constitutional right to publish cannot be compromised by a jury verdict.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the evidence in relation to the drug dealing allegation was that very little of newspaper's evidence supporting the allegation was actually challenged by Mr McDonagh, he said.

It was clear there was effectively unchallenged evidence to the effect that Mr McDonagh was aware a drugs consignment was being planned, that the drugs had been bought in Spain by the man he met in London, that the operation was financed by Mr McDonagh's brother, Michael, and that the drugs were taken to the UK via Amsterdam.

The judge said these matters were among the pleas in justification for the article as well as the fact that Mr McDonagh had IR£410,000 in a bank acccount at the time when he was claiming social welfare and had no other visible means of support.

The evidence offered by Mr McDonagh was that he had never been charged or convicted in relation to Tubercurry or any other drugs offence and that he denied making statements while in garda custody. 

Reviewing the evidence as a whole, Mr Justice Hogan said he found himself coerced to the conclusion that it showed overwhelmingly Mr McDonagh was indeed a drug dealer and the jury's conclusion to the contrary was perverse and could not be allowed stand. 

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