A victory for brave journalism

Sunday Times ‘Underworld Kings’ libel ruling shows court will consider evidence, however it is obtained

The success of the Sunday Times in its defence of a claim brought by David Hunt over its article ‘Underworld Kings cash in on Taxpayer Land Fund’, illustrates the dangers implicit in fighting criminal allegations in the context of a civil trial.

The article referred to a £20m fund run by the London Development Agency which sought to acquire land for redevelopment. The meaning of the article was not really in contention. The Sunday Times’ defences were those of justification and ‘Reynolds’ qualified privilege. It accepted it had to prove that Hunt was the head of an organised crime group involved in murder, drug trafficking and fraud and that he was responsible for physical attack, intimidation and threats to kill.

As the judge stated, “the court was engaged in a two-stage process – it had to decide whether the defendant had proved all or at least some of the factual propositions which it had asserted and, secondly, it had to decide whether the facts found are such to establish the essential or substantial truth of the libel”.

After preliminary hearings including a claim against the defendant by the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis to prohibit the use of leaked documents, the court ordered that the defendant was entitled to use for the purposes of proceedings the confidential documents it managed to obtain.

This emphasised that the court will be reluctant to exclude relevant evidence, however obtained. The judge also found in favour of the defendant on its oral evidence. He accepted that crucial evidence of the witness of the assault was truthful and, in contrast, that Hunt’s denial was knowingly untruthful.

In respect of the most serious allegation that Hunt was the head of an organisation concerned with murder, drug trafficking and fraud, the defendant focused on the evidence of money-laundering. The judge analysed evidence obtained from various sources over a period of time – something that would have been almost impossible in a criminal trial where the prosecution could not have been so wide-ranging. This led the judge to conclude that the defendant had justified the part of the first, and most serious, meaning that the claimant was, “the head of an organised crime network implicated in extreme violence and fraud”. 

The defendant had not been able to justify the allegation of the claimant’s involvement in murder and drug trafficking, and could not rely on section 5 of the Defamation Act 1952. However, given what the defendant had been able to justify, the words it had not been able to prove as true or substantially true did not affect the amount of damages that may be recovered by the claimant.

The Sunday Times also succeeded in its Reynolds qualified privilege defence. The judge agreed that it was a matter of public interest if criminals were being paid from public funds, adding that “this was a serious piece of investigative journalism which was expressed in forthright but not extravagant terms and without tangential addition in order to liven up the story”.

This was a vindication for the journalist, Michael Gillard’s, investigative journalistic activities and a lesson in letting the story speak for itself.