Writer says column a 'legitimate opinion'

Denis O'Brien leaving the Four Courts yesterday on the fourth day of his High Court action against the Irish Daily Mail. photograph: collins/courts

Denis O'Brien leaving the Four Courts yesterday on the fourth day of his High Court action against the Irish Daily Mail. photograph: collins/courts

Wed, Feb 13, 2013, 00:00

Irish Daily Mail columnist Paul Drury told the High Court yesterday an article written by him about businessman Denis O’Brien was “a legitimate piece of opinion” based on true and accurate facts.

“I was offering a legitimate piece of opinion on a matter of enormous public interest that affected and continues to affect every one in this country,” he said.

Mr Drury was giving evidence on the fourth day of Mr O’Brien’s action against Associated Newspapers, two editors and Mr Drury alleging defamation over the article published on January 22nd, 2010.

Published days after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, it was headlined: “Moriarty is about to report, no wonder Denis O’Brien is acting the saint in stricken Haiti”.

Mr O’Brien claims the article accused him of being a hypocrite over his efforts to assist the relief of Haiti where his telecommunications company Digicel has substantial interests.

The defendants plead the article was a piece of opinion honestly held based on facts Mr Drury believed were true.

Yesterday, Mr Drury said he believed that in writing the piece he had a duty to “bring some form of enlightenment” about a matter of public interest. “I believed what I said, I believe it now and I will believe it to the day I die,” he said.

Earlier, he told Oisín Quinn SC that he disagreed strongly with the claim that the article was motivated by malice.

“Outrageous assault”

A letter from Mr O’Brien’s lawyers describing the article as a malicious assault on Mr O’Brien’s good name and character was itself an “outrageous assault on my good name”.

“I think Voltaire may have said, ‘while I may disagree violently with everything you say, I would defend to death your right to say it’ and I would defend his [O’Brien’s] right to say it about me.”

While he agreed the article was cynical, it was not malicious, and he bore Mr O’Brien no animus whatsoever.

“This is about me writing about something of enormous public interest and being cynical about the motives of a very wealthy and powerful man and about what he chose to say. I believe I am entitled to do that and to come to any other conclusion would be a travesty.”

Earlier, Mr Drury said the idea came after seeing Mr O’Brien in an interview on RTÉ with reporter Charlie Bird in Haiti.

He discussed it with the editor-in-chief Paul Field and approached it with a certain amount of trepidation because he was aware Mr O’Brien was a powerful man, “and one does not lightly take on the 250th wealthiest man in the world”.

A reference to Mr O’Brien “popping up” in two interviews with Bird, as well as in another with former US president Bill Clinton, was something many people might have commented on when they saw him, he said.

Claim disputed

Mr Drury disputed Mr O’Brien’s claim that there were several things that were factually wrong in the article.

It was true Mr O’Brien was a tax exile because he now lived in Malta, paid no tax on €295 million from the sale of Esat Digifone because he lived in Portugal at the time, and he was reluctantly “or quite literally dragged” before the Moriarty tribunal, Mr Drury said.

He got it wrong in describing Mr O’Brien as a multimillionaire “because he is in fact a multibillionaire”.