O’Brien wins €150,000 in damages in 'Mail' case
Journalist Paul Drury arriving at the Four Courts yesterday while the jury was in deliberations. photograph: collins courts
Businessman and media owner Denis O’Brien has been awarded damages of €150,000 against the Irish Daily Mail after the newspaper published an article that accused him of being a hypocrite. A jury of six men and six women found the article was defamatory and he was entitled to damages.
In response to a number of questions it had to answer, the jury agreed it was the author’s honest opinion, but they said it was not based on fact and was not in the public interest.
It is believed it was the first time the defence of honest opinion has been used in a major defamation case in Ireland. It was introduced as part of the Defamation Act 2009.
Mr O’Brien had said the article by Paul Drury, published on January 22nd, 2010, 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. He took his action against Associated Newspapers, then-editor Paul Field and Mr Drury.
Oisín Quinn SC said last night the paper would be appealing the result but would not seek a stay of execution on the order to pay the award because of the amount involved.
During their deliberations, the jury at one stage asked the judge to clarify the circumstances pertaining to aggravated, or exceptional, damages.
Earlier yesterday, Mr Quinn said the right to express opinion was “vital to society”. He said the case was 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,” he said. He said the jurors 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”.
‘Right and true’
Addressing the jury in closing submissions on the seventh day of the case, Mr Quinn highlighted “10 facts” contained in the article that were “right and true” and on which Mr Drury based his opinion. He said the article was “sarcastic, cynical, with some attempt at humour”, but was obviously an opinion piece. It had drawn attention to what Mr O’Brien was doing on RTÉ.
Mr Quinn also drew attention to Mr O’Brien’s wealth and said we had to listen to politicians, ministers and people who run banks every day.
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. “Wouldn’t it be a sorry day if in Ireland you couldn’t do that?” he asked.
Paul O’Higgins SC, for Mr O’Brien, said 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 also said while Mr O’Brien could afford to take the defamation case, most of the people hurt and damaged by newspapers could not. He also suggested that when someone goes to the Press Council with a complaint the newspapers would “laugh all the way to the bank”.
He also claimed “no research of any kind” had been done before the article was published or since.
The “facts” on which the article was based were not true, Mr O’Higgins said, and therefore the defence of “honest opinion” must fail.