BBC in libel payout over Newsnight charity terror link claims

Not the usual suspect when it comes to libel payouts, the BBC's Newsnight programme was at the centre of a dispute that resulted in the corporation having to pay substantial libel damages.

In August 2008 Newsnight broadcast a report suggesting charitable funding from Children in Need that had been paid to a school in Leeds, had in fact been siphoned off and used to fund radical propaganda and assist the terrorists behind the 2005 July 7 bombings in London.

Hanif Malik who was chairman of the trustees to the school in question, Leeds Community School, thought that the BBC report was defamatory by implication given his close ties to the school and community.

Although the BBC report had not actually named Malik, he was able to secure today's payout on the basis of the possibility of his being identified and consequently suffering damage to his reputation.

This case is interesting on two points:
First, it highlights the risk broadcasters (and the media generally) face where they run a report from which someone could be identified as being implicated in the defamatory allegations. As the law stands the claimant does not have to show that he was actually identified and defamed, merely that the report has the potential to defame him. It is therefore for the media, in this case the BBC, to show that what it reported was true and that any implication or innuendo that could be drwn from the facts was justified in relation to the object of such innuendo. In this case it clearly couldn't or the BBC wouldn't have been persuaded to get out its chequebook and settle.
Second, it demonstrates that when producing a report that contains serious accusations and seeks to link one set of facst to another. In this case it could show that the Leeds school received charity funding. It also drew the inference that monies had been supplied locally to fund the publication of radical Islamist pamphlets and support the terrorists behind the July 7 '05 bombings. What the BBC was unable to do was to prove a causal connection and link between the two.

So in this case Newsnight's report came unstuck because it couldn't substantiate the inference its claims sought to make AND because behind those claims was a person who thought he could be personally implicated by them. The BBC has perhaps been reminded what the papers experience on a more regular basis, that the burden of proving ones story in court and defending it weighs heavily on the media.

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