A former Kildare Gaelic footballer has been awarded €310,000 damages after a High Court judge found he was "grossly defamed" in two Sunday World articles concerning swingers parties and the sex trade.
Mr Justice Tony O'Connor said the articles published in 2012 and 2013 amounted to a "very serious" libel and had an "immense" impact on Brian Nolan. On a scale of one to 100, the defamation ranked at 75.
He awarded €250,000 compensatory damages and €30,000 aggravated damages over the newspaper’s conduct of its defence. He also awarded €30,000 punitive damages based on findings including the newspaper was reckless whether the details and suggestions in the articles were accurate or true.
Rejecting defence arguments the articles were in the public interest, he stressed the court’s duty to vindicate the rights of citizens “will not be thwarted by the vacuous plea that there is a public interest in publishing salacious material without regard to the truth”.
He dismissed additional claims by Mr Nolan concerning breach of his right to privacy arising from circulation of photos of him taken while he was attending the parties, including of him beside scantily clad women. Mr Nolan consented to the taking of photos by a stranger who attended the party and photos were freely available among up to 26 people of which he might have known only four at most, he said. For those reasons, the right to privacy was not engaged.
A native of Newbridge but now living in Goatstown, Dublin 14, Mr Nolan (49), who played senior football for Kildare in the 1990s, sued over a July 15th, 2012 article which described him as "The King of The Swingers" and featured photos of him alongside women in lingerie whose faces were pixelated.
Mr Nolan, represented by Jim O'Callaghan SC and Paul O'Higgins SC, also sued over a second article on the sex trade in Ireland published over 12 pages on March 3rd 2013 under the headline "Ireland Exposed" and also including photos of, and references to, him.
Mr Justice O’Connor found both articles were defamatory. He accepted Mr Nolan’s evidence he was brought to swingers parties by his then partner, found them “distasteful” but attended four of them over 18 months up to 2011 to try and maintain his relationship.
Dealing with the 2012 article, he said the overall view from the text and photos characterised Mr Nolan as “a principal organiser of orgies in the State with an underlying undertone of criminality”. It was wrong of any person to think, conclude or joke Mr Nolan organised or willingly attended the parties, the judge found.
The article “gratuitously” referred to a physical disability suffered by Mr Nolan and “rather disturbingly” to a then ten year old conviction for money laundering to which Mr Nolan pleaded guilty in 2002, was fined €25,395 and given a suspended sentence. Mr Nolan discharged his debt to society for his conviction by his sentence, fine and publicity at the time and while mention of that conviction was not defamatory, context “is indeed all important”, he said.
Despite Mr Nolan’s pleas to a Sunday World journalist not to publish the 2012 article, for reasons including he feared losing access to his young children, no one bothered to assess the risk to him, the judge said.
Depression, clouds of darkness and suicidal ideation were terms that “hardly do justice” to the effect of the 2012 article on Mr Nolan. He rejected the newspaper’s arguments the slight on Mr Nolan’s reputation was due to his voluntary attendance at the parties rather than the “full scale coverage”.
Mr Nolan, who in 2012 was long separated from his wife, lost access to his children and their names were changed when they moved school after the article, he said. He was also shunned by his extended family and within his social and sporting circles and it was a credit to Mr Nolan, his ex wife and family they have regained some accord despite the “total disrespect” shown by the newspaper and its employees.
The judge noted the 2013 article included a photo of Mr Nolan similar to one used in the 2012 article and captioned: “Scoring: Former GAA player Brian Nolan now organises sex parties.”
A reasonable person who glanced at this 12 page “investigation” was likely to form the view the characters identified, including Mr Nolan, were “immersed in economic activities involving the provision of sexual services or activities”, he held.
Mr Nolan was placed in a “particularly awful” context in the 2013 edition once it is accepted, as the court had, there was “not a shred of evidence” to support a suggestion or innuendo he was involved in prostitution, pimping or any such type of illegal activity.
The court was not told of any internal controls, supervision or editing services operated by the newspaper to ensure the lives of citizens “are not destroyed by lack of investigation and harmful inaccuracies” and, if it had such controls, “they failed abysmally”, he said.