Environmentalist Chris Packham has said that a “line in the sand” was crossed after a series of defamatory articles made claims that he misled the public into donating to a wildlife charity to rescue tigers.
The TV naturalist is suing three men for libel at the High Court over nine online articles claiming he defrauded people into donating to the charity to rescue the tigers while knowing they were well looked after.
The strongly denied allegations, repeated in several tweets and videos, relate to Mr Packham’s involvement with the Wildheart Trust charity, which runs a wildlife sanctuary on the Isle of Wight.
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.”
In written arguments, Mr Wightman and Mr Bean previously said: “The statements complained of are serious and would convey a defamatory tendency were they not factual and b***** well true.”
At a hearing last month, Mr Justice Johnson was asked to decide how an ordinary reader would understand some of the 19 articles, videos and tweets in the claim.
In a judgment on Thursday, the judge ruled the allegations are defamatory and “amount to statements of fact rather than expressions of opinion”.
Mr Justice Johnson said that he “broadly” agreed with Mr Packham’s lawyers over the meaning of each publication.
He continued: “The essential meaning of many of them is a variation on the theme that the claimant dishonestly raised funds from the public by stating that tigers had been rescued from a circus where they had been mistreated, whereas in fact, as the claimant knew, the tigers had been well-treated and had been donated by the circus.”
“Each of those meanings is defamatory of the claimant at common law. All the meanings amount to statements of fact rather than expressions of opinion,” the judge added.
He said: “Truth and love, and a love of truth, are things we cherish. They give us the ability to proceed, to become better people.
“They give us a chance of making a better world. So we must protect them, sometimes at great personal cost. And that is why I have no choice but pursue this course of litigation.
“In this case, the three have proactively sought to damage my reputation.
“There is a line in the sand and it’s been crossed and I aim to ensure that they and any others who seek to employ such methods cross back again. And stay there.”
Mr Justice Johnson later said the three men “do not shy away” from their allegation that Mr Packham “misused his role as a BBC presenter to defraud the public into making charitable donations on the false pretext that tigers had been mistreated by a circus and rescued by a zoo”.
The three men defending the claim had said that readers were told to “make up (their) own mind” over some of the claims, with the articles containing a series of questions that highlighted “suspicions”.
However, the judge rejected this argument, finding: “The questions that are raised in the articles are devices that convey, in what is intended to be an engaging and emphatic manner, that the claimant has sought to raise charitable donations by telling lies.”
He said: “They attack Mr Packham’s integrity and honesty, and allege serious criminality.”
Mr Price told the court some of the articles accused Mr Packham of having an “obvious nastiness” and playing the “Asperger’s victim card”.
He 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.”
However, Mr Wightman, speaking on behalf of the three defendants, told the court 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.