BuzzFeed legal case shows Dublin’s draw for foreign libel claimants
Press freedom campaigners say case is latest example of Irish defamation laws being exploited
Suing for defamation in the Republic is considered to carry several advantages. Photograph: iStock
Dublin is better known for attracting tech companies than libel claimants. But a US self-help guru’s lawsuit against an American news site has highlighted what critics say is the Republic’s emergence as the new global hub for defamation cases.
Tony Robbins, a leading life coach, brought his suit last week against BuzzFeed, which has published allegations of sexual misconduct against him. His Belfast-based lawyer Paul Tweed has emerged as the go-to libel man for A-list stars, representing clients from Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford to Britney Spears and, more recently, disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
With just 0.5 per cent of BuzzFeed’s 40 million monthly clicks deriving from Ireland, press freedom campaigners say the case is the latest example of the world’s wealthy exploiting the country’s claimant-friendly defamation laws to silence their critics.
Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said it showed that “powerful individuals can bring claims wherever they think they can get their case heard most easily, regardless of whether there has been any meaningful damage to them there”.
Mr Tweed vehemently denied libel tourism, saying he was pursuing BuzzFeed in Ireland because it was home to the European operations of Twitter, and he believed the dissemination of BuzzFeed’s stories on the social network had exacerbated the damage to Mr Robbins’ reputation. But before pursuing Twitter, he said he must “go after the source”.
There are advantages to suing in Ireland.
“Ireland has the most repressive libel laws in Europe,” according to Michael Kealey, who represents Daily Mail owner Associated Newspapers and is a member of industry body NewsBrands Ireland, which lobbies for reform of defamation laws.
Such views are not limited to defence lawyers.
“The claimant generally wins in Dublin and the cards are stacked in their favour, however undeserving they might be,” said Mark Stephens, who represents the British cave diver labelled “pedo guy” by Tesla chief Elon Musk. “If you have a libel case you don’t think you’ll win in the US or your home jurisdiction, Ireland is where you’ll go.”
London’s allure wanes
London was once seen as the world capital for libel claimants but its allure has waned since 2013, when the UK government reformed its defamation laws. English courts can now only hear libel cases against a person not domiciled in the EU if England is “clearly the most appropriate place in which to bring an action”, and the bar has been raised for claims.
In four decades at Belfast law firm Johnsons, Mr Tweed, became a specialist in representing celebrities and politicians. In 2017 he set up his own practice, Tweed, and now splits his time between Dublin, London and California.
Since the UK law change Mr Tweed has won prominent cases for celebrities whose cases were not obviously linked to Ireland. In 2014, for example, he won an apology to actor Jessica Biel and singer Justin Timberlake from Bauer Media Group, the German publisher of Heat magazine, over insinuations in its English-language edition relating to the state of their marriage.
Speaking last week, Mr Tweed argued that Heat sold, pro rata, the same number of copies in Dublin as in London, making it the appropriate venue for the claim.
“If you went into Tesco in Dublin you would have seen the magazine and the picture there, and if you’d gone into a Tesco in London you’d have seen the same thing,” he said.
Libel claimants who choose Dublin as their primary jurisdiction benefit from several advantages. With no cap on potential damages, claims can reach millions of euros, and trials are decided by jury. Unlike in England, it is not necessary to prove “serious harm” to a claimant’s reputation and publishers do not have a statutory “public interest” defence to deploy. Meanwhile, judgments by any civil court in the EU are usually immediately enforceable across the bloc.
One London-based defamation lawyer said Mr Tweed was “the best at arbitraging jurisdictions”, jumping between London, Dublin and Belfast, often suing simultaneously in all three.
Mr Tweed rejects that portrayal, saying he selects the appropriate place for his cases. He outlined the method to a committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2013 when describing how he sued Forbes magazine on behalf of Richard Donovan, an “ultra-runner”.
Mr Tweed said that, after Forbes dismissed an early settlement offer in New York, “I thought, right, stuff that, I gave them their chance . . . So, I issued in London, Dublin and Belfast simultaneously”. After dropping London for cost reasons, he focused on Belfast, which offered the earliest potential court date.
Campaigners and politicians are calling for libel law reform in Belfast and Dublin. “We want to see juries abolished . . . to bring some degree of certainty to the system and want a serious harm test introduced,” said Mr Kealey. “We are also looking for an effective cap on damages. We are seeing a chilling effect.”
Mr Tweed has opposed such views, arguing that changes to English law have been to the detriment of the “man of the street” and that the cost of making a claim has increased.
He has also said the 2013 statute’s changes have “done absolutely nothing to address the problem of online publishers and social networks”.
The relocation of Twitter and other social media platforms’ European headquarters to Dublin has helped smooth the way for Irish defamation claims.
Mr Tweed said he wanted all litigation relating to BuzzFeed “under one roof”. But BuzzFeed dismissed that argument as “a bizarre and flimsy attempt to justify [the claimant’s] own legal manoeuvre”.
BuzzFeed is standing by its story and sees the defamation claim in Dublin as an “abuse” of the Irish court system.
Mr Tweed said that while he has represented “clients some people would regard as toxic”, his largest group were “newspapers and politicians”.
“I’m not going to be a judge and jury. If people have a proper claim I’m just an officer through the court . . . And I will fight to the death.” –Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019