Tycoon Denis O’Brien has won an historic defamation case against British company Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the Irish Daily Mail.
O’Brien has been awarded $200,000 at Dublin’s High Court after a jury found he was defamed by an article in the paper written by columnist Paul Drury.
The case is believed to be a first in Irish legal history as honest opinion was used as the defence under new defamation laws introduced in 2009.
The jury found that Drury’s article was his honest opinion but they said it was not based on fact and was not in the public interest.
The jury of six men and six women found the article was defamatory and he was entitled to damages.
The Irish Times reports that O’Brien had said the article, published on January 22nd, 2010 and shortly after an earthquake in Haiti, accused him of being a hypocrite and motivated by self-interest over his efforts to assist the relief of Haiti where his telecommunications company Digicel has substantial interests.
Attorney for the paper Oisín Quinn said the paper will appeal the result but would not seek a stay of execution on the order to pay the award because of the amount involved.
The Irish Times reports that the jury at one stage asked the judge to clarify the circumstances pertaining to aggravated, or exceptional, damages.
Quinn told the jury before they made their decision: “The right to express opinion is vital to society. This case is about the simple truth of the right to express an opinion.
“We want you to stand up for the right of someone to express his view.”
Quinn told the jurors that they did not have to agree with what journalist Paul Drury said in the article, they just had to agree that he had a right to say it.
He also highlighted ‘10 facts’ contained in the article that were ‘right and true and on which former editor Drury had based his opinion.
The lawyer said the article was “sarcastic, cynical, with some attempt at humour”, but was obviously an opinion piece. It had drawn attention to what O’Brien was doing on Irish state television station RTÉ.
The report says he asked the jury if they thought public figures must be taken ‘at face value’ or could someone honestly question what they see and give their opinion.
He asked: “Wouldn’t it be a sorry day if in Ireland you couldn’t do that?”.
O’Brien’s lawyer Paul O’Higgins told the jury that much emphasis had been placed on the value of comment and ‘big people being brought to book’ but no comment was useful if it couldn’t be trusted.
He added that while Denis O’Brien could afford to take the defamation case, most of the people hurt and damaged by newspapers could not.
He claimed no research of any kind had been done before the article was published or since and that the facts on which the article was based were not true.
He added: Therefore the defence of honest opinion must fail.”