Desmond book claim 'false and damaging', court told

Express owner Richard Desmond sued for libel today over claims that he abused his position and was forced into a humiliating climbdown by Conrad Black.

Desmond’s counsel, Ian Winter QC, branded the allegations in Tom Bower’s unauthorised biography of Lord Black as thoroughly defamatory and wholly false.

He said it had been wrongly suggested that Desmond, the owner of Northern & Shell, which owns Express Newspapers, had ordered negative articles about Black as part of a vendetta against him.

Bower denies libel and says that what he wrote about Desmond in Conrad And Lady Black: Dancing On The Edge, which appeared in 2006, was substantially true and was not – in any event – defamatory.

Winter told Mr Justice Eady and a jury at London’s high court that Bower fell “a very, very long way short” of being able to prove his case, and had made a “catalogue of errors” for which he refused to apologise.

He said the truth about the 2003 libel mediation between Desmond and Black was completely different.

Winter said Desmond was not “ground into the dust”, as the book said, and did not accept a humiliating settlement by apologising for something he had published, which was actually true.

He said that the story which Desmond was apologising for was about a bank’s alleged withdrawal from negotiations to lend funds to Black’s company Hollinger.

Desmond had offered to apologise for that story more than two months before and maintained his position at the mediation.

He, in turn, required – and secured – an apology from Black for being wrongly called an “ex-convict” in one of his newspapers.

Winter said: “If anyone climbed down in the mediation, it was Lord Black – it was not Mr Desmond.”

It was also “palpable nonsense” that Desmond ordered an Express paper to run a story, in November 2002, that Hollinger was facing financial crisis out of revenge for losing a court dispute with Black over a printing plant.

Desmond had nothing to do with the story and it had no connection with the dispute of 18 months before, said counsel.

He added: “This action is not about money but marking the fact that this was a false and damaging passage in a book which, if not corrected, will sit around on shelves for many years.

The hearing, which is estimated to last seven days, was adjourned until tomorrow.

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