Guardian pays libel damages to academic

The Guardian has apologised and paid damages to a Moscow-based academic after publishing defamatory allegations that her review of a book was motivated by some grudge or professional envy.

Dr Rachel Polonsky, an independent writer and scholar who is based in Moscow, sued over an article which appeared in The Guardian on 22 October last year.

Her solicitor, Josephine Patton, told Mr Justice Eady in the High Court in London on February 15 that the article alleged that Dr Polonsky’s review of Professor Orlando Figes’ book Natasha’s Dance, which was published in the Times Literary Supplement in 2002, was motivated by some sort of personal grudge or professional envy against Professor Figes.

It also falsely alleged that Dr Polonsky had been a student of Professor Figes, had sought a job reference from him, was an old family friend – although they had known each other socially at Cambridge – and was a “frustrated academic” who could not live with his success.

The Guardian, said Patton, now acknowledged that it had misquoted Professor Figes’ comments about Polonsky, and was happy to make clear that she was never a student of Professor Figes, and had never asked him for a reference.

The newspaper also acknowledged that it should never have linked Figes’ remarks about frustrated academics to Polonsky, of whom they would be entirely false, and that the implication that a review of his book in the TLS was motivated by a personal grudge or professional envy or anything other than scholarly concern is without foundation.

The Guardian apologised to Polonsky for any embarrassment or distress caused and has paid undisclosed damages and her legal costs.

♦ A judge has rejected an attempt by a multimillionaire to strike out parts of the Guardian’s defences of justification and fair comment in a libel case over articles about Aids and medical treatment in South Africa.

Matthias Rath, who advocates the use of vitamins in the treatment of HIV and Aids, is suing The Guardian and its columnist Ben Goldacre over three articles which appeared in the newspaper’s Bad Science column in January and February last year.

Rath claims the articles mean that he is a “vitamin peddling Aids denialist who falsely claimed that his vitamin pills are a more effective treatment for AIDS than antiretroviral drugs”, that he was “selling ridiculous vitamin pills on the back of his false claim that they were better than antiretroviral drugs in treating HIV and AIDS”, and that he was “guilty of exploiting vulnerable Aids victims in South Africa” and was “substantially responsible for the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people”.

Rath applied to strike out parts of the defence and for summary judgment in respect of the defence of fair comment.

The Guardian and Goldacre seek to justify all three articles.

They say the first article was true in three meanings, the third being that Rath was associated through a colleague with an extreme attack, in the form of an allegation of genocide, against a prominent South African who had successfully campaigned for the public funding of antiretrovirals. They also claim fair comment insofar as the third article would be understood to mean that Rath had contributed to the “madness” whereby antiretroviral treatment was discredited and rejected in favour of vitamins, “which had let perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in South Africa die unnecessarily”.

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