Richard Desmond loses libel battle

By Marcus Dysch, July 23, 2009

Newspaper boss Richard Desmond has lost his libel action over claims that he abused his position to pursue a vendetta against a rival media tycoon.

A High Court jury has decided by a majority that the Express Group owner was not defamed in Tom Bower's 2006 biography of the former Daily Telegraph owner Conrad Black.

Mr Desmond faces a bill for legal costs estimated at around £1.25 million.

Outside the court, Mr Bower said the jurors had "done a great service to British journalism".

Norwood president Mr Desmond took the action against Tom Bower, also Jewish, over a reference in Mr Bower’s 2006 unauthorised biography of disgraced media tycoon Lord Black, Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge.

In the book, Mr Bower claimed Mr Desmond had ordered the Daily Express to report unfavourably on Lord Black’s business empire.

Mr Desmond denied interfering in what went into his papers and said the claim was defamatory. He said it made him look like “a wimp”.

Mr. Desmond said after the verdict was given that he did not regret his legal action.

He said: “I sued Mr. Bower for defamation because he made inaccurate and damaging allegations about me, yet he refused to apologise and publish a correction. Bower made a series of errors about events and timings and even got the name of one of my newspapers wrong.

"His biggest mistake was in thinking I would not go to court to uphold my reputation and the resulting action has cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds to defend a few ill-thought-out remarks that were not even essential to his book.It was worth it to stand up in court and set the record straight.”

During the hearing at London’s High Court, the jury heard a recording of an expletive-ridden threat made by Mr Desmond to the director of a hedge fund in which he had invested tens of millions of pounds.
He warned the man he could be “the worst f****** enemy you’ll ever have.”

Three days after the conversation the Sunday Express printed a defamatory article about the fund, for which it later apologised and paid a settlement.

Mr Bower’s legal team said it was proof that the newspaper proprietor used his publications to settle personal grudges.

Mr Bower did not give evidence in the case.

A statement from Lord Black, who is currently serving six and a half years in an American jail for criminal fraud and obstructing justice, was read to the court.

In it he discussed a mediation session between himself and Mr Desmond which followed a court battle over a printing plant they co-owned. It was at this meeting that Mr Bower claimed Mr Desmond had been humiliated by Black.

Black’s statement said: “It was not my impression that Mr Desmond had any desire for revenge against me following the litigation. I recall the correspondence between Richard Desmond and me. At all times it was personal and warm.

“Richard and I had a civil relationship. No unpleasantness had occurred between us.”
Roy Greenslade, media commentator and professor of journalistic ethics at City University, was asked about Mr Desmond’s reputation as a proprietor.

“It is extremely bad, both with journalists and other proprietors and managers of other newspapers. He has probably the worst reputation of any proprietor since the Second World War.”

Asked whether he felt Mr Desmond used his newspapers to further his reputation and attack others, Mr Greenslade replied: “Yes.”

David Hellier, a former business reporter for the Sunday Express, said the proprietor often visited the newsroom.

“He looked at headlines, looked at pages,” he said. “He suggested new headlines; some were great, some were bad. It was unusual for a proprietor to do this but the new editor seemed to be reasonably happy about it.

“My impression was that he effectively edited the paper. He was particularly interested in media stories.
“The general feeling was that Conrad Black, as far as Richard was concerned, was an adversary.”

Under cross-examination he said he felt there was a “consistent level of interference which went towards propaganda, not journalism”.

“It was obvious what was going on to me," said Mr Hellier. "I think Richard is a great guy in many respects but he’s not a journalist and should not be there on the editorial floor.”

Ronald Thwaites QC, defending Mr Bower, said Mr Desmond had “an obsession with Conrad Black” and “Mr Bower was merely commenting on this fact”.

He added: “There was nothing defamatory, in a fair reading of his words. Mr Desmond was simply being overly sensitive.

“Mr Desmond has been proven as someone capable of holding a vendetta and he should be sent away as a loser.”
Ian Winter QC, for Mr Desmond, told the jurors the allegations in the book were "highly defamatory and wholly false". He said the passage contained ten factual errors and Mr Bower's decision to not give evidence had been "deafening".

Last updated: 1:36pm, July 24 2009