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  1. Media Law
January 27, 2016

News agency boss sues Buzzfeed for $11m over ‘King of Bullsh*t News’ slur

By Dominic Ponsford

A British news agency journalist is suing Buzzfeed for $11m in the United States after it described him as the “King of Bullsh*t News”.

The 9,000-word article alleged Michael Leidig’s Vienna-based agency Central European News is "one of the Western media’s primary sources of tantalising and attention-grabbing stories". And it said that these stories are "often inaccurate or downright false".

Leidig is seeking $5m for serious damage to his reputation, $5m  damage to the reputation of CEN and $1m in special damages for specified losses to the business.

CEN is also seeking further punitive damages, to be assessed by a jury, because it says Buzzfeed "maliciously intended that its publication injure CEN’s business in Great Britain and elsewhere” and knew that its “own business would increase” as a result.

Leidig said he has launched his defamation action in New York after trying and failing to persuade Buzzfeed UK to amend or retract the piece. He has noted that Buzzfeed UK is not part of any industry regulation scheme.

The claim states that the piece meant CEN was “in the business of publishing news articles presented as true that are false” and that they are “the largest purveyors of such articles in the world”.

It claims that Buzzfeed acted with “reckless disregard” and in a “grossly irresponsible manner”.

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CEN says it is suing in the US because Buzzfeed’s principle place of business is in New York.

The claim says that Leidig had an “unblemished” career as a journalist before the publication of the Buzzfeed piece, and notes that he worked on a 2006 investigation into sex trafficking which won the Paul Foot Award for The Sunday Telegraph.

The claim notes several stories published by CEN which Buzzfeed said were false.

One was about people in China walking cabbages out of loneliness. CEN says this story was true.

Another story was about a Chinese man who had been infected with tape worm after eating too much sashimi. Buzzfeed claimed this story had been “debunked” because the x-rays used to illustrate it were similar to those used by the British Medical Journal in another case.

CEN’s claim says that Buzzfeed “intended to and did assert that plaintiffs had used an x-ray of some other person and passed it off as an x-ray of the Chinese man they were writing about”.

CEN says Buzzfeed did nothing to investigate this assertion and that any investigation would have revealed that the story was widely broadcast and published in China and that the x-ray was authentic.

Other articles which CEN insists were not false, as claimed by Buzzfeed, include the story of a Russian woman who dyed her kitten pink shortly before its death and a report on the birth of a two-headed goat in China.

CEN said the Buzzfeed piece also alleged that staff at the agency “frequently make up quotes”. CEN asserts that this claim is false.

Leidig and CEN set out the specific damages caused by the Buzzfeed report as follows:

  • Many clients have stopped using CEN since the article appeared
  • CEN’s second biggest client, the Daily Mirror, said it would now only use CEN stories when “absolutely necessary”
  • CEN’s sales of stories fell by 30 per cent
  • After the story was published a six-figure investor “disappeared”.

On a personal note, Leidig says that publication of the story last April marred a 50th birthday reunion with his family.

The claim says: “The day after Mr Leidig and his father spent the evening discussing these matters, his father had a massive stroke that left him unable to communicate with others, a condition no expected to change for the rest of his life.

“Thus the last memories Mr Leidig’s father had of him were of disgrace and possible ruin as ‘The King of Bullshit News’."

CEN's New York-based lawyer Harry Wise III said: "The Buzzfeed story accuses Mr Leidig, an experienced and award-winning journalist, of the worst thing you can accuse a journalist of – fraud.

"It is unfortunate that Buzzfeed refuses to recognize that its story is completely unfounded, and has done terrible damage to Mr Leidig and his company.

“We look forward to demonstrating those things in court."

Leidig said that when he had been first contacted by Buzzfeed they had pretended that they wanted to write a feature on CEN's "laudable investigative journalism".

However, he said that when the final Buzzfeed report was published, it made no mention of the agency’s public interest journalism.

He said: "I wrote to Buzzfeed’s newly-appointed editor Janine Gibson offering to settle this without any money needing to change hands, if they removed the article and apologised. 

“At that stage it might still have been possible to rescue certain investments and undo the damage. This olive branch was ignored and as Buzzfeed is not regulated by any independent body, the only alternative was to take legal action."

A spokesperson for Buzzfeed UK said: "We're aware that the suit was filed, but we don't comment on potential litigation."

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