31 May 2001 Edition

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McPhelimy wins again

BY FERN LANE

The film-maker and author of controversial book ``The Committee'', Sean McPhelimy, won another victory last week in his long-running libel case against the Sunday Times newspaper. At the Court of Appeal, three judges took only a matter of minutes to dismiss an application by the newspaper to overturn a jury's award to McPhelimy of £145,000 in damages on grounds that the verdict was ``perverse''.

While the judges will give their full judgement at a later date, they did comment that to overturn a jury's verdict on such grounds would encourage newspapers to abuse the appeals system, repeatedly returning to court after losing libel cases until they got the verdict they wanted.

The Sunday Times could now face legal bills of up to Stg£5 million as a result of publishing an article by Liam Clarke in 1993 in which he claimed that McPhelimy had perpetrated a hoax in 1991 when his company, Box Productions, made a documentary alleging that an organisation known as the Ulster Central Co-ordinating Committee, comprising around 50 people, had organised the killings of several Catholics by loyalist gangs. It was said that several prominent unionist politicians, police officers and businessmen were members of the Committee. In his article, Clarke accused McPhelimy of bribing and coaching his main source of information. Subsequently, the Sunday Times changed its case, claiming that McPhelimy had merely been duped by his source but nevertheless that he had acted recklessly and had unknowingly taken part in a hoax.

Although none of the alleged members of the Committee were named in the original television broadcast (McPhelimy did eventually name 21 members in his book, which was published in America), 19 of them gave evidence to the libel hearings, prompting the appeal judges to inquire why the Sunday Times was defending people who were not clients of its lawyers and who were not directly involved in the libel case. They asked: ``What on earth is it doing trying to vindicate the reputation of people who are nothing to do with the publication?''

The newspaper has said that it is considering taking its case to the House of Lords.

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