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Bizarre libel law trebles damages to O'Brien

THE archaic nature of our libel laws was exposed again last night after multi-millionaire businessman Denis O'Brien was awarded record damages of ?750,000.

The award against the Mirror Newspaper Group by 11 jurors in the High Court is the highest in the history of the state for a defamation action.

But the jury was never told the Supreme Court had rejected an earlier award of £250,000 (?317,000) granted to Mr O'Brien by another jury six years ago.

The Supreme Court described that award as excessive, and said the libel against Mr O'Brien could not be regarded as "coming within the grossest and most serious libels which have come before the courts".

It then sent the case back to the High Court on the issue of damages only but rejected an appeal by the Mirror to allow future juries to be given guidance on the amount of damages.

As a result, the new jury nearly trebled the award rejected by the Supreme Court, leading to calls last night for reform of Ireland's defamation laws. Frank Cullen, director of the National Newspapers of Ireland, described the award as "staggering".

He said: "The award clearly illustrates once again the need to reform our archaic libel laws and, as illustrated by this case, to provide mechanisms for judges to give guidance to juries on the level of damages to be awarded."

Irish Secretary of the NUJ, Seamus Dooley, said the ruling appeared excessively punitive.

"The amount appears disproportionate to the damage caused given the size of the circulation of the Irish Mirror, which is relatively small," he said.

Mr O'Brien, who had gone to court after an article appeared in the Irish Daily Mirror eight years ago, was visibly emotional as the jury gave its decision. Afterwards, he said: "I am vindicated. This case has been going on since 1998. It was an outrageous libel and I am happy to have been vindicated."

It is now highly likely that the Mirror Group will appeal the level of damages to the Supreme Court.

Before yesterday, the highest award for libel was IR£300,000 paid to former Democratic Left leader Proinsias De Rossa.

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In April of this year the Mirror Group admitted that the article published over three pages in June 1998 was untrue and defamatory of Mr O'Brien.

The article had alleged that former government minister Ray Burke was to be investigated for a third alleged payment of Ir£30,000. The newspaper referred to an anonymous letter which alleged the donation came from "top radio boss Denis O'Brien".

During the three-day hearing, Mr O'Brien said he never gave money to Mr Burke. He also said he never bribed former Communications Minister Michael Lowry or any politician.

Counsel for the newspaper group Eoin McCullough SC said it was an "extremely high award" and he asked for a stay on the award in the event of an appeal.

Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne said she would put a stay on the award providing there was a payout of ?250,000, which she said was like the previous award but it had a "nice ring to it".

The Mirror Group's legal adviser in Ireland, James O'Leary, said the newspaper group was very disappointed with the level of the award. He said the damages highlighted the urgent need for libel reform. Mr O'Brien had initiated proceedings against Mirror Group Newspapers and the then editor-in-chief of the Daily Mirror, Piers Morgan, and the then editor of the Irish Mirror Neil Leslie as a result of the publication in June 1998.

In April this year the Mirror Group admitted the article was untrue and was defamatory of Mr O'Brien.

In his closing speech, Mr McCullough urged the jury to bring in extremely small damages.

He asked the jury to reflect on the nature of a mountainside conversation between Mr O'Brien and then Esat chief executive Barry Maloney in 1996 where it is alleged Mr O'Brien said he had paid IR£100,000 each to Mr Lowry and an unnamed person.

"If you conclude what Denis O'Brien meant was he made an improper payment in connection with the licence then it is going to be very difficult to conclude he is entitled to damages."

As regards a possible payment to charity from the award, Mr McCullough said the case could not be assessed as a newspaper having to pay damages to charity.

Counsel for Mr O'Brien, Hugh Mohan SC, said the Mirror Group had sought to complicate what was a simple case. He said there was no suggestion Mr O'Brien is corrupt or involved in corrupt practices.

Dearbhail McDonald and Ann O'Loughlin

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