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6 April 2000 Edition

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McPhilemy vindicated


The stunning victory over the Sunday Times by film-maker Sean McPhelimy, author of The Committee, in his libel suit has left the newspaper and its journalists reeling in disbelief. After six days of deliberation, the jury decided that the newspaper had libelled McPhelimy when it claimed in an article on 9 May 1993 that he had deliberately perpetrated a hoax in his programme The Committee, shown in October 1991 for the Channel 4 Dispatches series. The jury also decided that The Sunday Times had failed to prove that the committee alleged by McPhelimy did not exist and ordered that the newspaper pay him £145,000 damages. With legal costs, the final bill is likely to be in the region of £1 million. McPhelimy is also claiming for loss of earnings because of the devastating effects of the Sunday Times article on his company, Box Productions, and could be awarded a further £500,000 if successful.

The jury's decision rested on five essential questions put by the trial judge, Mr Justice David Eady. They were asked to consider; (a) whether The Sunday Times' article defamed McPhelimy; (b) if The Sunday Times had proved on the balance of probabilities that there was no Ulster Central Co-ordinating Committee as described in the Dispatches programme; (c) if The Sunday Times had proved that McPhilemy was deliberately setting out to mislead the viewers; (d) if The Sunday Times had proved on the balance of probabilities that McPhilemy was reckless as to the truth of the programme's allegations as to the existence or activities of the Committee; and finally (e) if The Sunday Times had succeeded in proving that their article of 9 May, 1993 was substantially accurate. The jury responded with a `yes' to the first question, and `no' to the remaining four.

Since the court ruling, however, both The Times and The Sunday Times have been engaged in some serious whingeing, revisiting the arguments and coming very close indeed to repeating the libel. Further, the newspapers have repeatedly stated that The Sunday Times has been granted leave to appeal the verdict, as if this were some kind of vindication of the original libellous article or implicit acknowledgement of its innocence.

Liam Clarke, the author if the 1993 article, wrote plaintively in last week's Sunday Times of his own personal torment at the outcome, saying ``losing a libel action, even when you are intending to appeal and fight on, is a gutting experience'' and complaining at length about the tactics of McPhelimy's legal team. As a further tug on the heartstrings of his readers, he talks of the ``devastation'' of many of the newspaper's witnesses. In tremulous prose, he mentions specifically ``an elderly man whom I would trust with my life'' who told him `I was sick to the pit of my stomach, I couldn't take it in, what will people think of me now?' Later, he expressed relief at the decision of The Sunday Times to appeal.''

In an accompanying piece, John Burns again trawled laboriously over the respective characters and evidence provided by Jim Sands and Eddie Quinn and called the verdict ``deeply troubling''. Despite quoting the judge on the issue, Burns seems to have entirely missed the central point of McPhelimy's libel case. The question was not whether Sands and Quinn were hoaxers, but whether McPhelimy was and the jury decided that he was not.

In another twist, both David Trimble and the Sunday Times journalists have claimed, as part of their defence, that ``even'' Sinn Féin has not called for an inquiry into the allegations of collusion contained in both McPhelimy's programme and his book, and Trimble further claims not to have met ``anyone in Northern Ireland who takes this book seriously''. Given the narrow range of people with whom Mr Trimble regularly mixes, this is hardly a surprise, and anybody paying even the scantest regard to the Six Counties will know of Sinn Fein's continued call for an independent inquiry into the allegations of collusion, although they will also know already that such collusion undoubtedly exists. But, as McPhelimy pointed out in his book, his detractors, both political and journalistic, have spent huge amounts of their time and energy attacking the programme as well as him personally, rather than properly investigating the allegations contained with it.

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