Environmentalist Chris Packham is bringing a High Court libel claim over articles which he says falsely alleged he misled the public into donating to a wildlife charity to rescue “broken” tigers from circuses.
The TV naturalist is bringing a claim over a series of online articles which repeatedly claimed he defrauded the public into donating to the charity to rescue the tigers while knowing they were well looked after.
The allegations, which were repeated in several tweets and videos, relate to his involvement with the Wildheart Trust, a charity he is a trustee of.
Mr Packham strongly denies the allegations and is suing three men for libel.
One of the articles on the website Country Squire Magazine said Mr Packham and his partner had “clearly not been truthful with the British public”, adding: “Money has been raised on the back of their truth-bending and they now need to come clean and tell the truth.”
The weblog’s editor Dominic Wightman, writer Nigel Bean and a third defendant, Paul Read, are defending the claim, arguing the allegations were true and in the public interest.
The men say the tigers were kept in good conditions at the circuses they were moved from and that Mr Packham had lied.
At a hearing on Tuesday, Mr Justice Johnson was asked to determine the “natural and ordinary” meaning of most of the 21 articles, videos or tweets.
Mr Packham’s barrister Jonathan Price argued that readers would think one of the articles meant the broadcaster had dishonestly misled the public into donating to the charity for rescuing maltreated tigers when Mr Packham knew the tigers had not been maltreated, in what the barrister once called “tiger fraud”.
In written submissions, Mr Price said: “Readers can be left in no doubt as to the severity of what is being alleged against Mr Packham personally.
“The publications speak for themselves: they are littered with express references to lies, deceit and fraud and Mr Packham is presented as being at the very heart of the deception.
“They attack Mr Packham’s integrity and honesty, and allege serious criminality.”
The barrister added that the articles went beyond legitimate debate about what it might mean to “rescue” a circus animal and accused Mr Packham of “bare” dishonesty.
Mr Price told the court that some of the articles accused Mr Packham of having an “obvious nastiness” and playing the “Asperger’s victim card”.
He continued: “There is the customary unsavoury link between my client and Jimmy Savile, just because he works for the BBC.”
The barrister added that the weblog had accused the BBC of being complicit in a “scam” and that the articles had a theme of trying to get Mr Packham sacked by the broadcaster.
Mr Price continued: “Were this to be true investigative journalism that gathers information in the public interest… it would not contain the degree of venom, bitterness and malice.”
Mr Wightman, speaking on behalf of the three men, who were described as “defamation law virgins” in written arguments, said they were “happy to robustly defend the truth of our articles and tweets”.
He said the articles were a “long-term journalistic investigation” and he was “standing on a mountain of facts” about the allegations.
Written arguments on behalf of Mr Wightman and Mr Bean said the weblog’s audience were “mostly not balaclava owners or tank-chasing Clerkenwell lawyers, but proud Brexiteer countrysiders already accustomed to the claimant’s outlier stances and fibbing tendencies”.
It continued: “The statements complained of are serious and would convey a defamatory tendency were they not factual and bloody well true.”
The men later argued there was a difference between rescuing tigers and rehoming donated tigers, and that “a sincere belief that ‘all circuses are cruel’ does not compute to real ‘physical’, let alone ’emotional’, circus cruelty”.
Mr Wightman told the court other articles would provide context that had not been included in Mr Packham’s claim.
He concluded: “Truth must be illuminated in the public interest. To smother her in legalese shall inevitably fail. Truth shall shine her light.”
A statement on behalf of Mr Packham said the allegations of defrauding the public into donating funds to the Wildheart Trust had been independently investigated by the Fundraising Regulator, which found no breach of the fundraising code.
The statement continued: “Despite these findings, the defendants have refused to remove numerous articles, tweets and videos from the public domain and continue to repeat these serious allegations of misconduct.
“Our client therefore regrets that he has no alternative but to pursue legal action in light of the extent of the publication and the serious harm caused to his reputation.”
Mr Justice Johnson will give his decision on the meaning of the articles at a later date.