Chris Packham wins libel claim against website

·4 min read
Chris Packham
Chris Packham sued three men for libel at the High Court

Naturalist Chris Packham has won his libel claim against a website that alleged he misled people into donating to a tiger rescue charity.

The presenter sued in the High Court over articles published on the Country Squire Magazine website.

Site editor Dominic Wightman, writer Nigel Bean and proof reader Paul Read defended the libel claim.

Mr Justice Saini ruled in Mr Packham's favour against Mr Wightman and Mr Bean, but dismissed the one against Mr Read.

Speaking outside court, Mr Packham said online abuse and hate crimes were a "vile part of modern life".

He said it "ruins lives, livelihoods, reputations, it disrupts young peoples' educations, causes incalculable mental health problems and tragically causes people to take their own lives".

"As it stands the criminal law is simply not there to protect us from such hate - something that must change."

He thanked his followers for their "unswerving support and belief in my honest crusade to make the world a better place for wildlife, people and the environment".

Mr Wightman and Mr Bean were ordered to pay £90,000 in damages to the Springwatch host.

"Mr Packham did not commit any acts of fraud or dishonesty," the judge said in his 58-page judgment.

"Mr Packham did not lie and each of his own statements was made with a genuine belief in its truth.

"There was no fraud of any type committed by him in making the fundraising statements."

During the trial Mr Packham said he had been targeted because of his "deeply held views" about blood sports.

The 61-year-old and his partner Charlotte Corney are trustees of Isle of Wight sanctuary the Wildheart Trust.

Chris Packham and Charlotte Corney
Chris Packham was photographed with his partner Charlotte Corney outside the Royal Courts of Justice during the case

Mr Packham was accused of dishonestly raising money at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic while knowing the charity was due to receive a £500,000 benefit from its insurance.

But Mr Justice Saini said Mr Wightman and Mr Bean did not "come even close to establishing the substantial truth".

"Rather than approaching the task with an investigative mind, these defendants targeted Mr Packham as a person against whom they had an agenda," he said.

He added: "Any investigative journalism quickly gave way… to increasingly hyperbolic and vitriolic smearing of Mr Packham, with further unsubstantiated allegations of dishonesty regarding peat-burning and the trust's insurance gratuitously thrown in."

Springwatch presenters Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan, Iolo Williams and Gillian Burke
Chris Packham (pictured with his fellow Springwatch presenters) says he was targeted because of his "deeply held views" about blood sports

Giving evidence during the trial, Mr Packham explained: "We weren't hopeful that we would be insured against Covid-19 closures."

He said the insurance payments "ultimately saved the sanctuary in what was a time of dire need".

"But to be very clear, if we had not launched the fundraising appeal as rapidly as we did then these payments may have arrived too late to make a difference," he said.

The presenter's New Forest home has been targeted in an arson attack and had dead animals repeatedly left outside it.

He said the defendants' claims had "misled, agitated and fuelled a vocal and violent conspiratorial fringe who increasingly post threatening and vile material about me and my family".

Chris Packham
Mr Packham denied all the accusations levelled against him by Country Squire Magazine's editor

Mr Packham added: "I do go to walk my dogs in the woods and wonder 'is today the day that a psychopath fuelled by all this hate turns up and kills me?'

"I genuinely no longer expect to live a long life free from violence and intimidation, because it may only take the one wrong person to read Country Squire Magazine for things to go horribly wrong."

During the trial Mr Wightman and Mr Bean's lawyer said the articles were true and in the public interest.

Mr Read's lawyer described him as a "mere proof reader" and not responsible for the articles.

'Outright vitriol'

The judge agreed that Mr Read "had no editorial or equivalent responsibility for the statements complained of or the decision to publish them".

But he said the others had "used this litigation as a device to introduce offensive material to smear Mr Packham".

He added: "The tone descended into sinister threats and outright vitriol, including offensive references to Mr Packham's neurodiversity, and abuse of (solicitors) Leigh Day.

"These were not the product of any acts of responsible journalism."

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