A series of articles claiming conservationist Chris Packham misled the public by donating to the Isle of Wight’s Wildheart Trust to save tigers is defamatory, the High Court has ruled.
The TV presenter said a ‘line in the sand’ had been crossed after nine articles were published online claiming he defrauded people into donating to the charity to save the tigers knowing that they were well cared for.
The TV naturalist is suing three men for defamation in the High Court.
The strongly denied allegations, repeated in several tweets and videos, relate to Mr Packham’s involvement with the charity Wildheart Trust, which runs the Sandown Wildlife Sanctuary.
One of the Country Squire Magazine website articles said Mr Packham and his partner had “clearly not been honest with the British public”, adding:
“Money has been raised on the back of their truth and now they need to come clean and tell the truth.”
Blog editor Dominic Wightman, writer Nigel Bean and a third defendant, Paul Read, are defending the libel action.
In written submissions, Mr. Wightman and Mr. Bean previously stated:
“The offending statements are serious and would convey a defamatory tendency if they were not factual and b***** true.”
At a hearing last month, Judge Johnson was asked to decide how an ordinary reader would understand some of the 19 articles, videos and tweets in the claim.
In a judgment on Thursday, the judge ruled that the allegations were defamatory and “constituted statements of fact rather than expressions of opinion”.
Judge Johnson said he “largely” agreed with Mr Packham’s lawyers on the meaning of each post.
“The essential meaning of many of them is a variation on the theme that the plaintiff dishonestly raised funds from the public by claiming that tigers had been rescued from a circus where they had been abused, while in fact, as the plaintiff knew, the tigers had been well treated and had been donated by the circus.
“Each of these meanings is defamatory to the plaintiff at common law. All meanings amount to statements of fact rather than expressions of opinion. added the judge.
Following Thursday’s judgment, Mr Packham said he had “no choice” but to press charges.
“Truth and love, and the love of truth, are things we cherish. They give us the ability to move forward, to become better people.
“They give us a chance to create a better world. We must therefore protect them, sometimes at great expense. And that’s why I have no choice but to pursue this course of litigation.
“In this case, the three actively sought to damage my reputation.
“There is a line in the sand and it has been crossed and I aim to make sure that they and anyone who seeks to use such methods crosses it again. And stay there.
Judge Johnson later said the three men ‘didn’t mind’ their allegation that Mr Packham ‘misused his role as BBC presenter to defraud the public into making charitable donations under the false pretense that tigers had been mistreated by a circus and rescued by a zoo”.
The three men defending the claim had said readers had been asked to “make up their own minds” about some of the claims, with the posts containing a series of questions highlighting “suspicions”.
However, the judge rejected this argument, concluding: “The issues raised in the articles are devices that convey, in an engaging and emphatic way, that the plaintiff sought to raise charitable donations by telling lies.
At last month’s hearing, Mr Packham’s lawyer, Jonathan Price, said the articles, videos and tweets were “littered with express references to lying, deception and fraud and Mr Packham is presented as being at the very heart of the deception”.
“They attack the integrity and honesty of Mr Packham and allege serious criminality.”
Mr Price told the court that some of the articles accused Mr Packham of having ‘obvious viciousness’ and playing the ‘Asperger’s victim card’.
“If this were true investigative journalism that gathers information in the public interest…it wouldn’t contain the degree of venom, bitterness and malice.”
However, Mr Wightman, speaking on behalf of the three defendants, told the court they were “happy to vigorously defend the truth of our articles and tweets”.
He said the articles were a “long-term journalistic investigation” and that he “stands on a mountain of facts” about the allegations.