Newspaper proprietor Richard Desmond sued for libel today over claims that he abused his position to pursue a personal vendetta against Conrad Black and was then forced into a humiliating climbdown.
The allegations, in writer Tom Bower’s unauthorised 2006 biography of the now disgraced Lord Black, were “highly defamatory and wholly false”, Desmond’s counsel, Ian Winter QC, told Mr Justice Eady and jury at the High Court.
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Desmond, the owner of Northern and Shell, which owns the Express newspaper group, was “caught in the crossfire” as Bower pursued his thesis that Black would crush opponents by using libel writs, he said.
Bower denies libel and says that what he wrote about Desmond in his book, entitled Conrad And Lady Black: Dancing On The Edge, was substantially true and was not defamatory.
Winter said the passage complained of contained 10 major factual errors told the jury that Bower fell “a very long way short” of being able to prove his case.
It was not true that Desmond was motivated by personal revenge, after losing a court dispute with Black over the West Ferry printing plant, to order an Express paper to run an inaccurate story, in November 2002, that Hollinger was facing financial crisis following a bank’s withdrawal of a loan.
Desmond knew nothing about the story, which was prompted by an article in a financial journal, until about the time of publication and it had no connection with the West Ferry dispute, said counsel.
Winter said correspondence between Desmond and Black showed that there was no personal vendetta between the two men, despite the mutual “ribbing” in their newspapers.
He added that during the September 2003 libel mediation, Desmond was not “ground into the dust”, as the book had said, and did not accept a humiliating settlement by apologising for something which was actually true.
The story about the loan being withdrawn had turned out to be false and Desmond had offered to apologise for it three months before, maintaining this position at the mediation.
He, in turn, required – and secured – an apology from Black for being wrongly called an “ex-convict” in one of his newspapers.
“If anyone climbed down, it was Lord Black,” said Winter.
The libel action was not about money but vindication, he said, adding:
“Mr Desmond, as a businessman, has to deal with people and if they believe that, despite having this tough reputation, he is a wimp and can be made to say sorry for things that are true, it can be very damaging for him.”