Saturday 20 December 2014

Denis O’Brien wins €150,000 in Daily Mail defamation case

Tim Healy

Published 14/02/2013 | 20:55

Denis O'Brien outside the High Court after winning Daily Mail defamation case

BUSINESSMAN Denis O'Brien has been awarded €150,000 after a High Court jury found he was defamed in an article in the Irish Daily Mail.

The jury of six men and six women decided to make the award after nearly three hours deliberation and hearing seven days of evidence.

The article was written by columnist Paul Drury and published on January 22, 2010, shortly after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and headlined: "Moriarty is about to report, no wonder Denis O'Brien is acting the saint in stricken Haiti."

Mr O'Brien (54) claimed the article meant his involvement in the Haiti relief effort was a hypocritical act and an attempt to deflect attention from the Moriarty Tribunal report which contained findings adverse to  him but which he strongly disputes.

The claims were denied by the publishers of the Mail titles Associated Newspapers, by the Irish editor in chief at the time of the publication Paul Field and by Mr Drury (55) who said it was a piece of opinion honestly held on a matter of public interest.

Tonight the jury agreed the article meant Mr O'Brien's involvement in the earthquake relief was a hypocritical act primarily motivated by self interest and was an "ingenious feint".

It found the words in the article did represent the honest opinion of the defendants but did not find this opinion was based on allegations of fact proved to be true or that they may have been known, or might reasonably be expected to have been known, by readers of the article.

The jury also found that the opinion expressed was not a matter of public interest.

It assessed damages at €150,000 but said Mr O'Brien should not be awarded aggravated damages.  About ten minutes earlier, the jury had returned to court to ask the judge for a "clear definition" of what aggravated damages were.

Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne discharged the jury and told them they were an exemplary jury who had worked over and above the call of duty.

During the trial, Mr O'Brien told the court the article was nasty, spiteful and grubby and caused damage to his good name and reputation.  It was poorly researched and the suggestion that he was trying to deflect attention from the Moriarty Tribunal could not be further from the truth.

A reference in the article about him "popping up" in interviews with RTE's Charlie Bird in Haiti was incorrect as he had at most spent 10 to 15 minutes in Mr Bird's company during several days in the country after the quake.

Mr Drury stood by his article which he said was an honestly held opinion which, while it might be cynical, was not malicious and he had no agenda against Mr O'Brien.

 In his closing address to the jury yesterday, Oisin Quinn SC, for the Mail, said this case was of immense importance what the jury would decide would resound outside the courtroom.

There was a simple truth at the heart of this case and that was the importance of allowing people to express their opinion and having the courage to give their opinion when they are up against somebody important, counsel said

The Mail was not asking the jury to judge Mr O'Brien or Mr Drury nor his motives for what he wrote.  What was being sought was the jury to "stand up for what is right" and for the right of Mr Drury to express his view, counsel said.

It was also about the right of commentators not to have to accept at face value what people in the public eye say, whether they are politicians, bankers or others.

It is easy in our democracy to take for granted the right to freedom of expression but in countries where they get their freedom for the first time, it is one of the most important new rights they get, counsel said.

There was no evidence to support Mr O'Brien's claim that Mr Drury or the paper was malicious, he argued.

In his speech to the jury, Paul O'Higgins SC, for Mr O'Brien, said the facts in this case were of paramount importance and whether or not they (jury) believed some of the particular answers they heard from witnesses are true.

It was a case about freedom of expression but the fact that Mr O'Brien is wealthy was not relevant because every day newspapers write about people who are not wealthy and who are aggrieved about what was written about them.

Those people cannot afford to take on the papers because they risk losing their homes or livelihoods whereas papers like the Mail, with an annual turnover of €2bn, can afford to fight cases like this and write off the bill for them against their taxes, Mr O'Higgins said.

People can go to the Press Council with their complaints but the papers are "laughing all the way to the bank" because it does not cost them a penny and the paper can effectively "get away with it," he said

After the verdict, Denis O'Brien said he was "delighted", felt vindicated and "obviously very pleased at the result".

Asked about contrast between this €150,000 award and a previous High Court libel award to him of €750,000 against Mirror Group Newspapers, he said:  "We live in different times."

He said freedom of expression was an important part of democracy.

However, everybody should have a right to their good name and this case was all about his good name.

Solicitor Michael Keely, on behalf of Associated Newspapers, said his side was extremely disappointed and it was a very sad day.

The newspaper, he said, would uphold the right of all its columnists to give their views even though some may find it uncomfortable.   He added they were considering whether to appeal.

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