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News agency's $11m libel action against Buzzfeed dismissed by US judge

News agency boss Michael Leidig has lost his bid to sue Buzzfeed over a 5,000-word article published by the news website in 2015 which dubbed him “The king of bullshit news”.

British Leidig launched his claim in the US in January 2016 seeking $11m in damages over the article, which alleged that his agency Central European News was “one of the Western media’s primary sources of tantalising and attention-grabbing stories”.

It added that these stories are “often inaccurate or downright false”.

Judge Victor Marrero said that under New York law Leidig (pictured) had to prove “fault” on behalf of Buzzfeed and “either negligence or actual malice depending on the status of the libelled party”.

And unlike UK law, the onus in the US was on Leidig to prove the statements were false (rather than on Buzzfeed to prove they were right).

While the judge held that Buzzfeed’s reporting was backed up by evidence he said Leidig and CEN could offer no evidence to support the stories it reported which Buzzfeed said were fake.

Leidig was seeking $5m for serious damage to his reputation, $5m for damage to the reputation of CEN and $1m in special damages for specified losses to the business.

Explaining his decision to rule in favour of Buzzfeed and reject Leidig’s claim ahead of trial, Judge Marrero said: “Buzzfeed argues that plaintiffs cannot show the falsity of the allegedly defamatory statements, and thus plaintiffs’ claims must fail. The court agrees…

“In the face of repeated instances where Buzzfeed points to specific evidence supporting the truth of the article, plaintiffs’ sole rejoinder is that neither Leidig nor any CEN employee admitted to knowingly publishing ‘a fake news story’ or to ‘adding phony quotations to a story’.

“Apart from these statements, plaintiffs provide no evidence that Buzzfeed’s eight statements about the CEN stories are false. As such, no jury could find Buzzfeed’s statements to be false.”

The plaintiffs’ inability to identify a genuine dispute of material fact was best exemplified by their decision to contest only one of the more than 200 numbered paragraphs in Buzzfeed’ s statement in its defence, he said.

CEN and Leidig’s “strategy of painting with broad brush strokes is not limited to blanket denials”, said the judge, adding that they had attempted to expand the scope of their claims by arguing that the court should analyse “the libellous ‘sting’ of the article as a whole” rather than the effect of the eight statements at issue – which would “force Buzzfeed to defend a moving target”.

It was unnecessary to consider the claim by Leidig and CEN that the burden on falsity depended on whether they were public figures – which they said they were not – because they could not meet the burden of proof in either circumstance, the judge said.

“Because the court finds that plaintiffs cannot satisfy the falsity element for any of the eight statements, the court does not address BuzzFeed’s alternative argument that plaintiffs are public figures and would need to show that BuzzFeed made the statements with actual malice as to their falsity,” he said.

The case hinged on five stories published by CEN that Buzzfeed claimed were fake:

1) The cabbage story

This was a story sold by CEN  “concerning people in China walking cabbages, rather than pets, out of loneliness”.

Judge Marrero said CEN could “offer no evidence regarding the cabbage story’s veracity. Even CEN’s employees could not trace or verify any relevant quotes or sources”.

2) Sashimi tapeworm story

The judgment states that this was a story about “a Chinese man who had reportedly gotten tapeworm from eating too much sashimi, [and the] story was accompanied by a photo purporting to be a photo of the man’s x-ray showing the spots of disseminated cysticercosis”.

Buzzfeed said CEN failed to alert its customers that the website Snopes had debunked the story.

The judgment says: “Plaintiffs fail to provide any support for their position that Buzzfeed’s reporting on the Sashimi Tapeworm story was false.”

3) Pink kitten story

This was a CEN story about a Russian woman named Elena Lenina
who had dyed her kitten pink, supposedly causing its death.

Buzzfeed relied on reporting from Gawker’s Antiviral website to argue that the story was false and the kitten was in fact alive. The judge ruled that CEN was unable to prove otherwise.

4) Nude woman story

This was a CEN story “concerning some Russian women who stripped in public and lost their jobs as a result”.

According to the judgment, CEN “claim that they were merely parroting Russian media reports, and did not falsify names or quotes”. But the judge said CEN could not prove Buzzfeed’s reporting was wrong.

5) Two-headed goat story

This was a CEN story concerning “the birth of a two-headed goat on a farm in China”.

Buzzfeed questioned how CEN managed to get a quote for the story from a local farmer when local news agencies were unable to do so, implying that the quotes were fabricated. The judge said CEN failed to provide any support for their position that Buzzfeed’s reporting on the story was false.

A spokesperson for Buzzfeed said: “From the outset of this baseless lawsuit, Buzzfeed has stood firmly behind the accuracy of its reporting and cooperated with the court at every step of the process.

“Today Judge Marrero vindicated that reporting, finding no falsehoods in the article cited by the plaintiffs, who he describes as ‘self-serving and discredited’ [Judge Marrero said CEN’s testimony in support of the ‘cabbage story’ was ‘self-serving and discredited’].

“The judge’s decision represents a hard-earned victory for thorough, truthful journalism.”

Full disclosure: Dominic Ponsford has advised Michael Leidig on a voluntary basis in his efforts to set up an NGO called The Fourth Estate Alliance to support freelance journalism.

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