Paper wins appeal over gagged university story

By Dominic Ponsford

The Belfast Telegraph has won a High Court victory allowing it to
reveal the “alcohol impaired” behaviour of a university vice chancellor.

Mr Justice Higgins of Belfast High Court has ruled that freedom of speech outweighs the university’s right to confidentiality.

The
legal drama began in April when reporter Claire Regan obtained a report
compiled by Sir Michael Buckley about University of Ulster vice
chancellor Professor Gerry McKenna.

It revealed that McKenna’s
behaviour was believed to be “impaired through alcohol at seven
official meetings” and that witnesses reported a “general climate of
intimidation and personal attacks by the vice chancellor”.

The
report also revealed evidence that McKenna had awarded contracts worth
£400,000 to two firms of consultants without any competitive selection
process.

But after Regan put the claims to the University of
Ulster, it successfully applied for an injunction blocking publication
claiming breach of confidence.

At a full hearing last week, the
university argued that publication of the report could have a
“chilling” effect on people making future complaints about senior
members of staff.

But Telegraph QC Patrick Lyttle said the paper
would give an undertaking that the names of those interviewed as part
of the report would not be revealed.

He said: “The matters being
investigated are matters concerning good management and governance of
the university. If that isn’t a matter of public interest, I submit
nothing could be.”

In his judgment, Mr Justice Higgins said: “The
balance in this instance clearly falls in favour of freedom of speech,
which outweighs the university’s right to confidentiality.”

Telegraph
deputy editor Jim Flanagan said: “Freedom of speech is the lynchpin of
democracy and I think our decision to go to court has been fully
vindicated.

“The university used public funds to commission this
report and then incurred further expenditure attempting to keep its
contents confidential.

We simply wanted to place its findings in the public domain and let our readers make up their own minds about it.”

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