Express owner takes on investigative journalist

Author: By Andy McSmith

Yesterday, Richard Desmond, owner of the Daily and Sunday Express, and the
writer Tom Bower met in the Royal Courts of Justice, in a libel case which
could hinge on whether accusing a newspaper proprietor of interfering in the
content of his newspaper, or implying that he is not as tough as people
think, is defamatory.

Mr Desmond is suing for libel over for a claim made in a book by Mr Bower that
he set off a battle of wills with a business rival, Lord Black of
Crossharbour, former owner of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, by ordering a
journalist to write an article alleging that Black’s company was in such a
bad shape that a bank had withdrawn its credit. In his 2006 book “Conrad and
Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge”, Bower claimed that the resulting apology
that Desmond agreed to publish, was a “victory” for Lord Black against “a
tough operator”, which showed that “grinding his critics into the dust had
never failed”.

Desmond denies that he was behind the offending article, saying that he knew
nothing about it until after it had appeared in print. He also denies that
he was humiliated or ground into the dust. Bower claims that what he wrote
was true and not defamatory.

Ian Winter QC, for Desmond, told the jury in a London high court that it was
“highly damaging” to Desmond’s reputation as a businessman to have it
suggested that “his supposed toughness is a charade” or that “you can crush
him very easily.” He added: “If anyone climbed down in the mediation, it was
Lord Black – it was not Mr Desmond.”

Although Lord Black’s name featured prominently in yesterday’s hearing, he
will not be giving evidence in the case, because he is in a US prison,
serving a six and a half year prison sentence for fraud. Bower specialises
in writing unauthorised and unflattering biographies of the rich and
powerful. Past subjects include Gordon Brown, Mohammed Fayad, and Robert
Maxwell. He won a libel battle against Richard Branson seven years ago. He
began work on his book about Black in October 2005.

Mr Winter told the jury that the book was an “expose” designed to show that
Lord Black’s life, from his school days, had been “a single trajectory
heading to the penitentiary” and that the story about Desmond would not have
been included unless it appeared to fit the general picture Bower was trying
to build up.

He said that the offending article had been written by a Sunday Express
journalist, based on a report in a specialist news sheet called the
International Finance Review. When Lord Black threatened to sue, Mr Desmond
agreed straight away that there should be a retraction and apology, but
negotiations were held up when he demanded an apology in return for an
allegation in the Telegraph that the Express newspapers were “run by two
ex-convicts.” Mr Desmond wanted it acknowledged that he is not an
ex-convict. Both apologies appeared on the same day.

Mr Winter also read out letters exchanged between the two businessmen which,
he said, revealed their “arm’s length respect” for one another. Mr Bower had
not seen the letters because his biography was unauthorised. He but had
refused to apologise when challenged by Mr Desmond over what he had written.

The case, which is being heard by Mr Justice Eady, continues today.

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