Libel setback for former charity boss suing Exeter paper

A former charity boss engaged in a legal action against Exeter Express and Echo suffered a setback when a judge ruled two articles he complained over weren’t defamatory.

Kevin Wright is suing the paper, its editor Marc Astley, reporter Eleanor Gregson and owner Northcliffe Media claiming the title ran a campaign against him.

Articles published on 9 and 13 of January, last year, reported on Wright’s plan to use resources from the Bobby’s Fund charity he’d previously established to buy a ‘mansion’which would be used as a centre for sick children, and where he and his family would live, paying rent to the fund.

Wright launched his legal action claiming readers would assume he was using money raised for children’s cancer treatment to move his family into “a lavish home”.

Justice Eady ruled that read as a whole neither of the January articles was capable of bearing the defamatory meanings claimed by Wright.

However, Eady refused to strike out two other articles, a news article and a comment piece both published on 6 November, over which Wright is also suing and for which he is seeking exemplary damages.

The High Court judge said both were capable of bearing the defamatory meanings Wright claimed.

The November news article – published after Wright had left Bobby’s Fund – reported that collectors from a second charity set up by a former Bobby’s Fund employee had been staging street collections without licences, and were working under Wright.

The story suggested the collectors were working for the Kids Integrated Cancer Treatment (KICT) charity set up by Ian Weir, a former senior boss at the fund.

The editorial article published the same day stated that KICT was a charity the newspaper would not support.

Wright claims that parts of the November news article meant that he had “acted without official sanction and therefore illegally” over street collections.

In addition, Wright claims the last four paragraphs of the leader comment article meant that KICT was run by people who were not genuine, caring, and dedicated, and that by associating him with KICT the newspaper was conveyed this defamatory meaning about him to its readers.

The newspaper had sought the ruling on meaning, arguing that none of the material over which Wright complained was capable of being defamatory of him.

In relation to the November news article, Justice Eady said: “I should be exceeding my function if I were to rule that a jury would be perverse to find that the headline and introductory paragraph bore a meaning defamatory of Mr Wright.”

Eady said it would also be wrong of him to deprive Wright of a jury’s verdict.

He also refused to strike out the case on the editorial comment, saying he could not say that a jury would be perverse to conclude that the contrast drawn with the other people, who were “genuine” and “honest”, conveyed the message that Wright was purporting to be something he was not.

Eady removed Northcliffe Media from the claim on the basis of evidence from solicitor Tony Jaffa that the company had nothing to do with the newspaper’s publication at the material time.

The newspaper also argued that there was nothing to support Wright’s claim for exemplary damages.

On that issue, Eady said there was nothing to justify “this unusual form of relief”, adding: “In particular, there is nothing to support the proposition that any of the defendants made a calculation that there was more to be gained financially, or in any other way, from publishing the words complained of than would be lost through having to pay damages for libel.”

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