Guardian rapped for failing in basic 'human decency'

By Roger Pearson

A top libel judge has rounded on The Guardian for its “remarkably casual”

approach towards apologising in a case in which it was ordered to pay more than £50,000 damages to a British Army officer.

Mr
Justice Eady, one of the country’s senior libel judges, also accused
The Guardian, among other things, of: being slow to respond after it
accepted it was wrong; making an inappropriate response; and adopting a
dismissive attitude.

He made his scathing remarks after awarding
Colonel Jonathan Campbell- James £58,500 libel damages over allegations
in The Guardian linking him to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in
Baghdad.

The allegations at the centre of the case appeared in a
story on 16 September last year headed “UK officers linked to torture
jail”.

The paper said two officers, of which Col Campbell-James
was one, had been “embedded within the US unit responsible for
extracting information from Iraqi prisoners”.

The Guardian made
an “offer of amends” over what it had published and on 12 December,
three months after the story appeared, it published an apology, said
the judge, who was called in to decide on the appropriate level of
damages.

Commenting on the time it took the paper to apologise,
the judge said : “This was plainly a case for an immediate and generous
acknowledgement of error and for putting matters right, as far as was
then in their power, as soon as possible.

“It could not have hurt
The Guardian to acknowledge promptly, on the basis of the
uncontroversial facts, that the claimant had nothing to do with the Abu
Ghraib abuses and was not even in Iraq when they took place.

“For
some reason, The Guardian felt unable to take those basic steps. It was
not simply a matter of good journalistic practice. It was a matter of
elementary human decency.”

And the judge then criticised at the
paper for the form its apology took: “The attitude The Guardian adopted
to Col Campbell-James seemed to me to be remarkably casual. It was
described as the sort of mistake that can occur in any busy newspaper
office.

“Eventually the apology was published, in The Guardian’s
regular ‘Corrections and clarifications’ column [alongside a piece
pointing out that Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells had wrongly been referred
to as having an ‘all male cast’, since some of the principal roles had
been danced by ballerinas].

“Its approach to this claimant hardly
seems consistent with The Guardian’s proclaimed policy of correcting
significant errors as soon as possible.”

He added: “This was a
serious libel to which the response of the newspaper was, to say the
least, ungenerous. It took apparently no account of the security risks
to which it gave rise.”

Mr Justice Eady said his starting figure in assessing damages was £90,000.

While
he accepted that a discount had to be given because of the paper’s
offer of amends he said the “unaccountable delay” in acknowledging the
mistake and the dismissive references to it had to reduce the level of
discount.

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