Chronicle reveals why it settled out of court

Robertson: not asked to apologise

No editor in the UK is the subject of more sympathy from his peers this week than Paul Robertson of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle.

Robertson has issued a long and comprehensive statement to clarify why his newspaper settled out of court with two nursery nurses wrongly accused of sexual abuse of the children in their care.

The newspaper had attended a press conference four years ago, organised by Newcastle City Council, to launch a report, "Abuse in Early Years", by four members of a review team, which castigated the nurses even though they had been cleared by a court of any abuse.

The Chronicle gave full coverage of the report. Last week the nurses, Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed, were awarded £200,000 libel damages each against the council and the team.

They had originally sued both the council and the Chronicle and the paper decided to defend the case on the basis that either the allegations were true or, if they were not, they had published them under the protection of qualified privilege.

"Like everyone else, we had no reason whatsoever to doubt the findings of the review team at the time the report was issued," said Robertson. "We did not know the report was wrong. We did not know, (to use the words of Mr Justice Eady), that the review team lacked ‘fairness and humanity’. We did not know that the report contained a very large number of falsehoods and we certainly did not know that members of the review team were motivated by malice against Mr Lillie and Miss Reed."

The trial began in January and after six weeks, said Robertson, the Chronicle’s QC was contacted by the nurses’ QC saying they were prepared to settle with the paper, if it made a contribution to their legal costs, promised not to repeat the allegations and would report the outcome of the case against the council and the team.

"As anyone who has ever been involved in litigation will know, predicting the outcome of a High Court trial is very difficult, no matter how optimistic you are about the strength of your case," said Robertson, and the Chronicle was confident the defence of qualified privilege would succeed.

"We were not asked to pay their costs in full, we were not asked to apologise … and we were not being asked to pay any damages," he added.

"The Evening Chronicle was innocently caught up in the review team’s malicious campaign against Mr Lillie and Miss Reed and in the light of the terms of the settlement … we think Mr Lillie and Miss Reed recognised this."

The Chronicle was believed to have settled for around £60,000.

Robertson was not even editor when the report was published. He succeeded Alison Hastings this year.

By Jean Morgan

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