RTE libel win - 20 April 2001

Ireland’s national broadcaster scored a double victory for freedom of expression in the most significant libel decision in Ireland in recent years.

Politician Beverley Cooper-Flynn sued RTE and James Howard over a number of television and radio broadcasts alleging that she induced Mr Howard, and others, to evade tax obligations.

It was the repeated allegations in respect of Mr Howard that led her to bring the action.

The verdict was unusual. Following a 28-day libel action (the longest in the history of the Republic of Ireland) the jury found unproved the allegation in respect of Mr Howard, but found that Ms Cooper-Flynn had advised or encouraged four other persons to evade tax and, significantly, that her reputation had not suffered as a result of the broadcasts.

Payment of costs was decided separately by the judge. Ms Cooper-Flynn argued (i) that in obtaining a favourable verdict on the Howard allegations she had been to a large extent successful (despite a nil award of damages) and should recover her costs; and (ii)  Mr Howard should pay the costs of the claim against him since his evidence was rejected by the jury, and RTE should bear some responsibility as his evidence supported their defence of justification.

Mr Howard submitted that the verdict was incapable of suggesting impropriety on his part.

RTE argued that its defence of justification had succeeded; and since the jury found that Ms Cooper-Flynn’s reputation had not been harmed by the broadcasts, the single finding in her favour was irrelevant – "the cause of action only arises when defamatory matter is published causing damage to the plaintiff’s character".

The judge agreed and rejected Ms Cooper-Flynn’s arguments: the favourable verdict on the Howard allegation was rendered ‘valueless’ by the finding that she had advised others to evade tax.

Ms Cooper-Flynn also criticised the RTE journalist for the way in which the allegations were researched and broadcast. The judge considered that such criticisms could be relevant only to the issue of damages. He ordered Ms Cooper-Flynn to pay the defendants’ costs.

She may appeal.

The verdict of the Irish Times is that the whole affair – the broadcasting of the allegations and the outcome of the case – has "yielded to the media a considerable bonus by way of legal endorsement for investigative journalism".




Pamela Cassidy is a partner in the media department of Crockers Oswald Hickson


By Pamela Cassidy

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