Richard Desmond: 'Malevolent proprietor'

Jurors in the libel case brought by Daily Express owner Richard Desmond against biographer Tom Bower will retire to consider their verdict today.

Judge, Mr Justice Eady, will conclude his summing up in the trial at the High Court in London – which centres on allegations made by Bower in a biography he wrote of disgraced former Daily Telegraph owner Conrad Black.

Desmond is suing over claims that he abused his position to pursue a vendetta against Black after litigation over a printing plant and was then forced into a humiliating climbdown during 2003 libel mediation.

During the hearing Ian Winter QC, for Desmond, told jurors the allegations were “highly defamatory and wholly false”.

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

Yesterday, in a closing speech by Bower’s counsel, Ronald Thwaites QC, the jury was told Desmond was a “malevolent proprietor determined to do as he liked”.

If they were to decide in his favour – in the face of “abundant evidence” of Desmond’s bad reputation in the industry – they should award him just 40p in damages, the cover-price of one copy of the Daily Express, Thwaites said.

Thwaites said: “He is entitled to justice and justice in this case for him may mean you send him away with his tail between his legs.”

The big issue, he said, was whether the Express Newspaper’s boss was an interfering proprietor who behaved unacceptably by attacking people against whom he had grudges.

The most telling evidence, he added, came from a “very sinister” taped conversation in which Desmond, trying to recover his son’s hedge fund investment, told business associate Jafar Omid he was the “worst fucking enemy you’ll ever have”.

Thwaites said: “It shows to you his dark side, the side he didn’t want anyone to see – not the smiling face of the well-behaved witness.”

Counsel said the “threat” was followed three days later by a Sunday Express “hatchet job” about Omid’s company, which led to a settled libel action, in which Desmond was a defendant.

He added that Desmond’s behaviour brought him into conflict with journalists of integrity, like former Sunday Express editor Michael Pilgrim.

Thwaites said: “He was not prepared to bow to the whim and will of a malevolent proprietor determined to do as he liked.”

Given Desmond’s role, his papers only required a “puppet editor”, through which he issued “standing orders” to his team to attack Black and his company Hollinger.

In his Summing up Winter called contents of Thwaites’s submissions “irrelevant gaseous matter” and asked the jury to look for any evidence which proved the truth of the book passage his client complained of.

Winter said it contained ten factual errors, which rendered it defamatory, and about which the jury had not heard a solitary word of evidence.

The lack of answers to those ten points was an “admission of their failure”, he said.

Against that was the “reliable and cogent” evidence given by Desmond and his witnesses.

Winter told the jury: “Is it seriously suggested that there is some kind of wounded pride which prompts Mr Desmond to go through this ordeal?”

He said the jury could not resolve the case on personalities as Bower had not gone into the witness box and the absence of live evidence was “deafening” while solid, reliable and honest evidence from Sunday Express editor Martin Townsend had completely nailed any suggestion that Desmond had interfered in editorial as was claimed.

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