A High Court judge has this morning ruled that 19 separate articles, tweets and videos containing allegations about Chris Packham are defamatory at common law and that Chris’s lawsuit for libel damages against three defendants can proceed to trial later this year.
[Chris, his partner Charlotte, and some of his legal team at the High Court in February 2022. Photo by Ruth Tingay]
The ruling relates to a preliminary ‘meanings’ hearing held at the Royal Courts of Justice on 15th February 2022. During that hearing, amongst other things, Mr Justice Johnson considered the ‘natural and ordinary’ meanings of the allegations made by the defendants in the 19 articles, tweets and videos and whether their allegations were written as ‘opinion’ or ‘fact’. If found to be ‘opinion’ that could provide a defence for the three defendants.
Today’s ruling comprehensively states that each of the ‘meanings’ are defamatory of the claimant [Chris Packham] at common law and that they all amount to statements of fact rather than expressions of opinion.
At the forthcoming trial the burden of proof will be on the defendants to provide a lawful defence for their defamatory statements.
Today’s judgement can be read here:
Press release from Chris’s solicitors at Leigh Day –
A series of nine articles in Country Squire magazine, two videos on YouTube and eight tweets about Chris Packham were defamatory, according to a judgment handed down today.
An initial trial of preliminary issues about the meaning of the articles, videos and tweets rejected the contention that all were expressing an opinion.
The defendants claimed that when they contended that Mr Packham misused his role as a BBC presenter to defraud the public into making charitable donations on the false pretext that tigers had been mistreated by a circus and rescued by a zoo, they were expressing an opinion.
They relied on question marks, reference to the need for clarifications, an invitation to the reader to “make up your own mind” as part of their case.
However Mr Justice Johnson held that the meaning of each article is defamatory of Mr Packham at common law and amounts to a statement of fact.
He rejected arguments that serious allegations of fraud were mitigated. References to the police and other investigating bodies “were not presented in a way to suggest that the reader should keep an open mind. They again reinforce the central theme of the publications that the claimant has perpetrated a fraud on the public”.
He said the parts of the publications that express opinions were ancillary to the defamatory meanings that the articles convey.
Following the determination of the meanings of the publications, it is expected that a substantive trial will be held towards the end of the year.
Mr Packham began proceedings following repeated allegations in Country Squire magazine that he defrauded the public into donating funds for the Wildheart Trust, where he is a trustee, by falsely claiming that it had rescued emotionally and physically broken tigers from European circuses.
The claims were independently investigated by the Fundraising Regulator and found to be unsupported [Ed: RPUK blog on that here], but the defendants refused to remove the articles, tweets and videos from the public domain and since the proceedings were issued, repeated the allegations.
Following the judgment, Chris Packham said:
“Truth and love, and a love of truth are things we cherish. They give us the ability to proceed, to become better people. They give us a chance of making a better world. So we must protect them, sometimes at great personal cost. And that is why I have no choice but pursue this course of litigation. In this case the three defendants have proactively sought to damage my reputation. There is a line in the sand and it’s been crossed and I aim to ensure that they and any others who seek to employ such methods cross back again. And stay there.”
Chris Packham is represented by Leigh Day partner Tessa Gregory and solicitor Carol Day, who said:
“Our client is pleased the judge has recognised these very serious allegations are defamatory at common law. The burden of proof is now on the defendants to show a lawful defence to these claims in a substantive trial.”