Mail article 'legitimate opinion piece'

Paul Drury defended the article he wrote about Denis O'Brien in the High Court today. Photograph: Collins Courts

Paul Drury defended the article he wrote about Denis O'Brien in the High Court today. Photograph: Collins Courts


Irish Daily Mail columnist Paul Drury told the High Court today 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 the newspaper publishers, 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 claims are denied and 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, 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 his counsel Oisin Quinn SC he disagreed strongly with the claim the article was motivated by malice. 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 about Mr O’Brien, it was not malicious, he said. “I have not a malicious bone in my body,” he said, adding 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, as a writer of a weekly column, the idea for the piece came after seeing Mr O’Brien in an interview on RTE with reporter Charlie Bird in Haiti.

He said he discussed it with the editor in chief, Paul Field, and approached writing 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 Charlie Bird of RTE, 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.

Mr Drury disputed Mr O’Brien’s claim there were several things that were factually wrong in the article. It was true Mr O’Brien was a tax exile because he now lives in Malta, paid no tax on €295 million from the sale of Esat Digifone because he lived in

Portugal at the time and was reluctantly “or quite literally dragged” before the Moriarty Tribunal, Mr Drury said.

He said he got it wrong in describing Mr O’Brien as a multi-millionaire “because he is in fact a multi-billionaire”.

Mr Drury said he was “by nature and profession somewhat cynical” and it was part of his job and the media’s to hold the rich, influential and powerful to account and not to take what they say at face value. He also said he had done an amount of research, including finding out about Digicel’s substantial interests in Haiti.

Mr Drury said he accepted the article caused Mr O’Brien upset. Mr O’Brien had no doubt caused upset to Mr Justice Moriarty, chairman of the tribunal, when he accused the judge of being “out to get a scalp”, he said.

“I am entitled to express an opinion about him, that it my honestly-held belief and it would be a sad day for democracy if I was not allowed to do it.”.

Mr Drury also said he believed Mr O’Brien waged a PR campaign against the tribunal.

Mr Drury, [a member of the Press Council although not when the article was written] said he was baffled by Mr O’Brien’s saying he had not made his complaint to the Council because it did not have enough teeth.

While Mr O’Brien had refused an offer of a right of reply from the Mail, a complaint to the Press Council would not cost “a single red cent” and could have resulted in a finding against the paper leaving it with “serious egg on its face”.

Earlier, after the court heard there was some confusion about what day Charlie Bird began reporting from Haiti, Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne remarked it may possibly have been the case “too much faith had been put in RTE”.

A number of witnesses, including Digicel CEO Colm Delves, said Mr Bird and a cameraman had flown to Haiti on January 17th on seats arranged by Digicel on a Jamaican government jet.

Mr O’Brien’s solicitor Fergus Foody, of Meagher Solicitors in Dublin, gave evidence he had seen a report sent by Mr Bird, apparently from Haiti, two days earlier. Mr Foody said: “I thought I watched a programme on the 15th that said Charlie Bird was reporting from the airport.”

Mr Foody was asked to show the court a DVD copy of RTÉ’s news reports from Haiti, which included a Six One News report from Mr Bird apparently at the Port au Prince airport on January 15th, 2010. The word “Haiti” appeared on the screen.

The case continues.