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  1. Media Law
April 9, 2024

BBC faces Pandora Papers libel trial versus Tory donor Amersi after defamation ruling

Mohamed Amersi is seeking damages of up to £100,000 against an episode of Panorama and a BBC News article online.

By Charlotte Tobitt

The BBC defamed Tory donor Mohamed Amersi in its coverage of the Pandora Papers financial corruption investigation, a High Court judge has found.

The broadcaster will now decide whether to settle or to defend its reporting at trial, potentially arguing the defamatory information was true or in the public interest.

A BBC spokesperson said: “We are pleased with the outcome of this preliminary hearing, and look forward to continuing to defend our journalism.”

Mohamed Amersi, founder and chairman of social impact investment platform Inclusive Ventures Group and a former corporate lawyer, is suing the BBC and seeking damages of up to £100,000.

The case refers to an episode of Panorama entitled “Pandora Papers: Political Donors Exposed” and an online article headlined “Pandora Papers: Tory donor Mohamed Amersi involved in telecoms corruption scandal”, both published on 4 October 2021.

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The reporting alleged that Amersi, who it said had given nearly £525,000 to the Conservative Party since 2018, was “involved in one of Europe’s biggest corruption scandals” after working on deals for Swedish telecoms company Telia, which was later fined $965m (£700m) by the US.

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A trial of preliminary issues was held at the High Court in December and Judge Lewis has now ruled the reporting was defamatory of Amersi at common law in a judgment published on Tuesday.

He said both the Panorama and the article had this meaning: “There are strong grounds for suspecting that, during his work for Telia, Mr Amersi had been involved in deals on its behalf which he knew or should have known were corrupt, or involved corrupt payments.”

This is almost exactly the same as the wording argued by the BBC, except that the judge said they were “strong” grounds, rather than the “reasonable grounds” suggested by the broadcaster.

The main area of dispute between Amersi and the BBC had been the “level of guilt” the coverage attributed to him.

What did the BBC and Amersi tell the court?

Hugh Tomlinson KC, representing Amersi, argued the tone of both publications was “one of exposing wrongdoing” and that they were “not making some vague and general allegation of involvement in corruption” but left “little room for doubt” about his direct involvement in a corrupt transaction and other wrongdoing.

Although his denial was included in the reporting, Tomlinson said it did “not have any great diluting effect”. For example, in the article it was “insufficient to provide any antidote to the bane given that most of the article clearly contradicts those denials”.

Catrin Evans KC, representing the BBC, argued the tone was not about exposing wrongdoing but “about the world of political donations, the lack of transparency and suspicion and doubt in respect of the provenance and source of funds.

“Both the article and the programme looked at the claimant’s very substantial donations to the Conservative Party and whether he is an appropriate donor, having regard to the circumstances in which he made substantial amounts of money working for Telia,” she said.

“Looked at in this context, the reasonable reader or viewer would understand the allegations concerning the claimant to form part of a common theme about the claimant’s work for Telia generally, rather than drawing any distinction between the specific deals or payments made.”

Evans said Amersi’s explanations and denials were set throughout the Panorama programme, close to the allegations being made, as it is “well established that where a disclaimer or denial is included, the closer this is to the bane that the antidote is intended to affect, the stronger is the degree of antidote”.

Judge Lewis found that the programme made “very serious allegations about the claimant, his involvement with Telia and the source of his wealth”.

He added: “Both [publications] refer to him being involved in deals that involved corrupt payments. Both make repeated references to ‘corruption’, particularly the programme. The article has the graphic explaining ‘how did the “bribe” work?’. Both refer to the extraordinary amount of money that the claimant received from Telia, which only strengthens the reader’s and viewer’s suspicion that the claimant had been involved in deals that he knew or should have known were corrupt or involved corrupt payments. The reference to the claimant having lost his job, and the suggestion that his political donations should be returned, strengthens the level of suspicion.

“Whilst the denials to a degree diluted the strength of what was said, considering each publication as a whole, the overall impression given was one of there being strong grounds to suspect the claimant of the wrongdoing that is identified.”

The BBC News article remains online but has had a footnote since December 2022 stating: “This article is the subject of a legal complaint by Mr Amersi who says its contents are false and defamatory of him.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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