'Perverse' €900k damages against paper overturned
A €900,000 damages award against the Sunday World newspaper that truthfully said a man was a drug dealer has been described as "perverse".
The three-judge Court of Appeal yesterday unanimously overturned the 2008 award to Martin McDonagh.
Sunday World editor Colm MacGinty said last night that the decision was welcome, not only for his newspaper "but for all media organisations and outlets in Ireland".
"The court's finding that a verdict which was handed down by a jury was, in essence, perverse, highlights the entirely unsatisfactory system of dealing with claims involving the press and media," he said.
"The court recognised that the Sunday World, as with any newspaper, had and has a constitutional right to publish the information that Martin McDonagh was a drug dealer.
"Over the past eight years, following the decision of the jury which has now been overturned, that meant this constitutional right had been denied with potentially severe and serious consequences if the award of damages of €900,000 stood.
"The fallout from that flawed verdict was not limited simply to this story or this newspaper. It was a threat to the fundamental constitutional rights of press freedom and free speech.
Mr MacGinty said the case "demonstrates the total failure of the political system" to deal with Ireland's defamation laws, which he described as "outdated, overly complex and among the harshest in Europe".
He called for reform of the law, "not least that jury trials be dispensed with as they have been in the rest of Europe", and a reduction in delays and costs of cases "to avoid excessive threats to the freedom of the press".
The case arose out of a High Court jury finding that McDonagh was libelled in a Sunday World article describing him as a "Traveller drug king" following the seizure by gardai of IR£500,000 worth of cannabis and amphetamines in August 1999 in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo.
The newspaper had appealed against the award and McDonagh was paid €90,000 pending the appeal.
The court found that an allegation of drug-dealing was true and dismissed that part of McDonagh's claim.
Mr Justice Gerard Hogan said it was clear that the jury verdict, so far as it concerned the drug-dealing allegation, cannot be allowed to stand.
"The evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the conclusion that the plaintiff was, indeed, a drug dealer," he said.
If the allegation was correct, the newspaper had a constitutional right to publish and that right cannot be compromised by a jury verdict "which was, in essence, perverse".
McDonagh (51), of Cranmore Drive, Sligo, sued over an article published on September 5, 1999, describing him as a "Traveller drug king".
It was published midway through his seven-day detention for questioning in connection with the Tubbercurry seizure. McDonagh was ultimately released without charge.
The jury found the newspaper had failed to prove McDonagh was a drug dealer and a loan shark.
Mr Justice Hogan said this case presented the question of the appropriate balance to be struck between the right to one's good name and freedom of expression.
The right to freedom of expression does not permit the media to publish defamatory material.
If it is clear the article was true in substance and fact, then the media's constitutional right to publish cannot be compromised by a jury verdict.
It was clear there was effectively unchallenged evidence to the effect that McDonagh was aware a drugs consignment was being planned, that the operation was financed by his brother, Michael, and that the drugs were taken to the UK via Amsterdam.
The judge said these matters were among the pleas in justification for the article as well as the fact that McDonagh had IR£410,000 in a bank account when he was claiming welfare.
Mr Justice Hogan said he found himself coerced to the conclusion that it showed overwhelmingly that McDonagh was indeed a drug dealer.