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US journalist demands Telegraph apology over Melania Trump story retraction that made her 'poster girl for fake news'

A US journalist has demanded an apology from the Telegraph after it took down an article she had written in the face of a libel threat from Melania Trump, to whom the newspaper agreed to pay substantial damages.

Nina Burleigh, Newsweek’s national politics correspondent, claims the “lurid” apology to the First Lady, published by the Daily Telegraph on 26 January, has made her an “international poster girl for ‘fake news’”.

The Telegraph’s Saturday magazine on 19 January featured a cover story by Burleigh, headlined: “The mystery of Melania.”

But, a week after publication, the newspaper removed the online article and published an apology saying it had “contained a number of false statements which we accept should not have been published”.

Burleigh has now sent a legal letter to Telegraph Media Group, through lawyers McAllister Olivarius which claims the apology to Trump “traduces Ms Burleigh’s reputation as a competent journalist”.

“In fact, it is TMG’s apology that is false,” the letter, addressed to Telegraph editor Chris Evans, said.

“It appears that fear of Mrs Trump’s lawyer Mr [Charles] Harder, the ‘Gawker slayer’, caused TMG to capitulate abjectly in the face of his letter without regard to normal journalistic principles, at the cost of Ms Burleigh’s personal and professional reputation.”

Charles Harder represented Hulk Hogan in his successful $140m lawsuit against Gawker, which resulted in the site being closed down.

He has since won Melania Trump (pictured) an apology from the Daily Mail and represented US President Donald Trump in legal threats relating to the publication of books by former White House official Omarosa Manigault Newman and journalist Michael Wolff.

The letter added that the parts of the article complained about by the First Lady were well-sourced, benign, professionally fact checked and reviewed by a lawyer before publication, and given “proper and prudent caveats”.

“TMG had nothing to apologise for, and both the fact that it did so, and the particularly lurid way it abandoned the article, have turned Ms Burleigh into an international poster girl for ‘fake news’,” it said.

It concluded by saying that the Telegraph’s apology to Melania Trump had made Burleigh look, to the average reader, like an “incompetent and unprofessional journalist” who made a number of “unsupported allegations or deliberate lies” without checking them with reliable sources.

Burleigh told Press Gazette that she had given the Telegraph her sourcing for all the challenges and queries set out in Harder’s initial letter, but that this was not followed up on.

She said: “I have been a journalist for a long time. I know how to do this. The information in there was fact-checked. It’s based on actual conversations with real people who back their anecdotes up 100 per cent.”

She added: “I’ve written six books in 30 years of journalism or more. I have never been sued and I’m not an inaccurate and reckless journalist and that’s how they have depicted me and I want my reputation back. I want them to correct it.”

The article largely contained reporting carried out by Burleigh for her book Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women, published in the US in October and UK in December last year and already excerpted and reproduced in various American publications.

But Jef McAllister, managing partner at the law firm representing Burleigh, said he did not believe this action was due to a difference in the countries’ libel laws.

He told Press Gazette: “I don’t read UK libel law as requiring this retraction any more than the US… The truth remains a defence in the UK as it always has been.”

Burleigh and her lawyers are demanding that she receives an apology, that the original apology to Melania Trump is taken down, that she receives payment for the original article which was still outstanding when the letter was sent last week, and compensation for the effect on her reputation and any financial losses she may incur as a result, such as lost book sales.

“I think an apology is by far the most important thing because it’s her reputation at issue,” McAllister said. “It isn’t about trying to make windfall from them. This is a direct assault on her integrity as a journalist and therefore her capacity to make a living for the rest of her life.”

He added: “If we don’t fight against this kind of abuse of a reporter’s rights to try to do a good job and put it into the public I don’t know how you can fight back at all.”

McAllister’s business partner Ann Olivarius tweeted that “well-sourced, fact-checked reporting, even if unflattering, is not the ‘enemy of the people'”.

“An abject and factually incorrect apology and throwing reporters under the bus are, however, enemies of good journalism.”

A Telegraph spokesperson was unavailable for comment.

Press Gazette understands the newsgroup has replied to Burleigh’s legal letter and that her lawyers are now considering next steps.

Picture: Reuters/Carlos Barria 

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