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A few recent cases where BBC was successfully sued for libel

By: Sabir Shah

LAHORE: If Altaf Hussain’s MQM decides to file a defamation suit against the London-based British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the largest broadcaster in the world by number of employees and the planet’s first regular high definition television service, it can seek inspiration from a few more recent cases where plaintiffs have succeeded in accepting libel damages from this internationally respected media outlet.

Just to cite a handful of such cases where BBC has lost some legal battles of late, Gianfranco Zola, the manager of the West Ham Football Club and his assistant Steve Clarke had accepted undisclosed libel damages from the BBC on May 12, 2009 over a report they were planning to move to another team, Chelsea.

A prestigious British newspaper, The Independent, had reported in its May 12, 2009 edition: “During a BBC radio programme in February 2009, journalist Harry Harris had alleged the pair – who had both played at Chelsea – had gone to an interview with Chelsea Club owner Roman Abramovich about becoming the management team for the 2009-10 season. James Quartermaine, the lawyer representing Zola and Clarke, told London’s High Court that the two were – and remained – under contract to West Ham. He said for them to have attended an un-authorised interview would have constituted a breach of contract and, in Zola’s case, FA Premier League rules.”

The newspaper had stated: “Quartermaine said the BBC had accepted the allegation was wrong, and had agreed to pay Zola and Clarke damages and legal costs. The BBC’s lawyer, David Carrington, said the corporation did not endorse Harris’ comments and apologised for any distress caused.”

In November 2012, famous BBC programme “The Newsnight” had accused Lord McAlpine, a leading Tory politician of the Thatcher era, of being involved in sexual abuse in children’s homes in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.

Although he was not mentioned by name, this individual being referred to was Lord McAlpine. He was identified before transmission on Twitter and was foreseeably identified afterwards by large numbers of people. The report was wrong – as the BBC had reportedly admitted on November 10, 2012. It had consequently issued an unreserved apology.

According to the “Irish Times,” The BBC apologised and agreed to pay Lord McAlpine, a former Conservative Party treasurer, £185,000 (€215,000) over the story. Before the broadcaster retracted the story, Lord McAlpine was the subject of thousands of tweets linking him to the scandal.”

Another reputed British media outlet had reported: “The apology did not undo the damage caused – and certainly did not remove the obvious and serious distress suffered by Lord McAlpine over the past two weeks. He was, in accordance with very well established principles of English law, entitled to substantial damages.”

The “Irish Times,” an Irish daily broadsheet newspaper launched in March 1859, had gone on to write: “The BBC was, understandably, anxious to settle his claims as quickly as possible and, on November 15, 2012, it was announced that it had agreed to pay him damages of £185,000, plus costs. Lord McAlpine’s was a case of the most serious libel but one which was published in unusual circumstances: to a wide audience but without express identification. There are two possible arguments as to how the non-identification should affect an award of damages.”

It is pertinent to note that in May 2013, the same British politician, Lord McAlpine, had gone on to win a libel lawsuit in London against Sally Bercow, the wife of the House of Commons speaker John Bercow.

On May 24, 2013, the “Irish Times” had further reported: “Her posting appeared two days after a “Newsnight” report last November wrongly implicated the former Conservative Party treasurer in allegations of sex abuse at Bryn Estyn children’s home in the 1970s and 1980s. Mrs Bercow denied that the tweet.”

The “Irish Times” had added: “Ms Bercow settled the dispute with Lord McAlpine for an undisclosed amount. Ms Bercow’s post on Twitter linking him to the story was defamatory, Judge George Tugendhat said in his ruling.”

The newspaper had also quoted the judge: “I find that the Tweet meant, in its natural and ordinary defamatory meaning, that the claimant was a paedophile, who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care.”

A lawyer for Lord McAlpine, Andrew Reid, said the “failure of Mrs Bercow to admit that her tweet was defamatory caused considerable unnecessary pain and suffering” to Lord McAlpine and his family.

In December 2009, the BBC had lost a libel battle with an oil trading company Messrs Trafigura.

This is how another esteemed British newspaper “The Guardian” had reported this particular case on December 17, 2009: “After negotiations with Trafigura director Eric de Turckheim this week, the broadcaster agreed to apologise for a “Newsnight” programme, pay £25,000 to charity, and withdraw any allegation that Trafigura’s toxic waste dumped in Africa had caused deaths.

But at the same time, the BBC issued a combative statement, pointing out that the dumping of Trafigura’s hazardous waste had led to the British-based oil trader being forced to pay out £30million in compensation to victims.”

“The Guardian” had also published BBC’s statement in this context. The broadcaster’s statement read: “The BBC has played a leading role in bringing to the public attention the actions of Trafigura in the illegal dumping of 500 tons of hazardous waste” the statement said. “The dumping caused a public health emergency with tens of thousands of people seeking treatment.”

The BBC statement continued: “Experts in the [compensation] case were not able to establish a link between the waste and serious long-term consequences, including deaths.”

The newspaper had written: “In a confidential out-of-court settlement earlier this year, an agreed joint statement was issued by Trafigura and lawyers Leigh Day, representing almost 30,000 claimants in the Ivory Coast. It described the consequences of the waste dumping as “low-level” illness, rather than deaths or miscarriages.”

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