Haitian charity work at centre of case
BACKGROUND:In early January 2010, the tropical island of Haiti was rocked by a massive earthquake. Up to 300,000 people were killed and the tragedy triggered a worldwide humanitarian response. RTÉ decided to send its then chief reporter Charlie Bird to cover the disaster.
Businessman Denis O’Brien had interests on the island. His company Digicel had a centre there and some of his staff had died in the earthquake. He was contacted by Bird and assisted in getting him a seat on a Jamaican government jet to Port au Prince.
Bird got to the island on January 15th; O’Brien arrived two days later. He loaned Bird a satellite phone and helped in getting him a car and a camera man.
Two of Bird’s broadcasts for RTÉ news included contributions from O’Brien, amounting to a total of about 12 minutes footage, when O’Brien spoke about the disaster and relief efforts.
Back in Dublin, Irish Daily Mail columnist Paul Drury saw the broadcasts and was “intrigued”. He wrote his column highlighting some of O’Brien’s business activities, the pending Moriarty tribunal report and questioning his motives for being on RTÉ while in Haiti. The article was headlined “Moriarty is about to report, no wonder Denis O’Brien is acting the saint in stricken Haiti”. The article asked “who’s the chunky figure in the polo shirt who keeps popping up with Charlie Bird”.
O’Brien took offence and sued for defamation seeking damages for the distress and injury to his character and reputation the article inflicted. He told the court the article was “spiteful, grubby and offensive”. It meant his involvement in the Haitian effort was a hypocritical act primarily motivated by self-interest. He defended his dealings with the Moriarty tribunal and said he gave the interview at the request of Bird.
The court also heard from a further eight witnesses including the former minister for social affairs in Haiti, Josefa Gauthier. She told the court O’Brien loved Haiti and when his company invested in the island residents “thought it was Christmas”. There was also evidence from company staff on the logistics of the trip.
Drury took the stand for two days. He put up a robust defence of his column, telling the court he still believed what he had written.
Under pressure from Paul O’Higgins SC, for O’Brien, he said he had not phoned Bird or O’Brien to verify facts before writing his column because he was a columnist not a reporter. He said Eamon Dunphy or John Giles would not call Giovanni Trapattoni before commenting on an Ireland soccer game.
Issues of O’Brien’s wealth were also raised by Oisín Quinn SC, for the Mail, who repeatedly mentioned how he could afford to go to the High Court. But O’Higgins insisted an injustice had been done that could not be “batted off by some slap on the wrist from the Press Council”.