Chris Packham wins libel claim over ‘tiger fraud’ allegations

  • ITV's Sam Holder has the latest on the results of the libel claim

Chris Packham has won his High Court libel claim over denied allegations he misled the public into donating to a wildlife charity to rescue “broken” tigers from circuses.

The TV naturalist sued three men for libel over nine articles which included claims he “manipulated” people into donating to rescue five tigers while knowing the animals were well looked after.

The strongly denied allegations, repeated in several tweets and videos, related to Mr Packham’s involvement with the Wildheart Trust, which runs a wildlife sanctuary on the Isle of Wight.

Dominic Wightman, editor of the online site Country Squire Magazine, defended the libel claim along with writer Nigel Bean and a third man, Paul Read.

In a judgment on Thursday, Mr Justice Saini ruled in Mr Packham’s favour against Mr Wightman and Mr Bean, but dismissed his claim against Mr Read.

Mr Justice Saini said that Dominic Wightman and Nigel Bean "fail to come even close to establishing the substantial truth" of the allegation Chris Packham defrauded anyone in relation to the tigers.

He said: "They did not merely allege in the publications that there was some lack of care or negligence on the part of Mr Packham when he made statements about where the tigers had come from or as to their earlier lives.

"Nor did they suggest merely a careless lack of precision by Mr Packham in which he stated or implied the tigers were being kept in cramped conditions...(they) went straight for the most serious allegations of actual fraud and dishonesty."

Mr Justice Saini said that Mr Wightman and Mr Bean's public interest defence also failed.

He said in his judgment: "The approach revealed by the evidence is that rather than approaching the task with an investigative mind, these defendants targeted Mr Packham as a person against whom they had an agenda.

"I underline that having an agenda does not, in and of itself, disqualify a person including citizen journalists... from being able to benefit from a public interest defence.

"Indeed, in general terms many publications and professional journalists approach stories with what might be called an agenda.

"However, the agenda adopted by D1 and D2 (Mr Wightman and Mr Bean) meant that they approached what might be facts suggesting, at the very highest, that questions might be asked about the accuracy of the fundraising statements, as proving fraud and dishonesty on the part of Mr Packham."

The judge added: "Any investigative journalism quickly gave way, in the fifth and following articles, to increasingly hyperbolic and vitriolic smearing of Mr Packham, with further unsubstantiated allegations of dishonesty regarding peat-burning and the trust's insurance gratuitously thrown in."

Mr Wightman and Mr Bean were ordered to pay £90,000 in damages to the TV presenter.

Speaking outside court, Chris Packham said: "Every day many thousands of innocent people are victims of online abuse and hate crimes.

"This can be racially, religiously or politically motivated.

"It can be generated in regard to gender politics, environmental beliefs, body shaming.

"This vile part of modern life ruins lives, livelihoods, reputations, it disrupts young peoples' educations, causes incalculable mental health problems and tragically causes people to take their own lives.

"As it stands the criminal law is simply not there to protect us from such hate - something that must change.

"The current governments 'Online Safety Bill' is plodding along. In the meantime a tiny minority of victims are able to take civil action."

Chris Packham continued: "In a full and frank vindication of my innocence the court has found that 'Mr Packham did not lie and each of his own statements was made with a genuine belief in its truth'."

The presenter added: "I would like to thank my excellent legal team, barristers Jonathan Price and Claire Overman and Carol Day and Tessa Gregory and their team from Leigh Day. They have been steadfast throughout despite often appallingly offensive abuse from the defendants. Thank you.

"I would also like to thank Dr Ruth Tingay for setting up a Crowdfunder to help cover the costs of this long and expensive litigation.

"And lastly, my followers. Thank you for your unswerving support and belief in my honest crusade to make the world a better place for wildlife, people and the environment."