BBC counts cost of Aids libel victory

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The Independent Online
A seven-year legal battle over a television documentary into an alleged Aids-cure clinic ended in victory for the BBC yesterday - but leaves the corporation with a legal bill estimated at pounds 800,000.

The last of three "victims" of the joint Watchdog and New Statesman investigation, which led to a doctor being struck off for professional misconduct, abandoned his action for libel.

Senior BBC management are understood to be angry that such huge amounts of licence payers' money had to be spent defending legal actions that some observers saw as unwinnable. After the end of yesterday's High Court action a BBC spokesman said it was "regrettable" they had had to defend such an expensive case.

That hearing plaintiff Jabar Sultan, an Iraqi who was highlighted by the 1989 investigation as the scientist - said to be qualified as a veterinary surgeon - who ran the "Adoptive Immunotherapy" unit at London Bridge hospital. The New Statesman article described the treatment as "worthless".

Mr Sultan, 52, issued writs against both media organisations and represented himself when the case came before the High Court earlier this year.

Before the summer recess, Mr Justice Alliott told Mr Sultan: "I see no prospects of you winning this case." The judge also said the trial was "costing the licence-payers of the BBC a great deal of money".

When the hearing resumed yesterday, Mr Sultan dropped his actions. He was not asked to pay costs and said afterwards that he had no money left after a "seven-year" battle. It was an "unsatisfactory" end, he said.

In July Dr James Sharp, who ran the private clinic, abandoned his actions for malicious falsehood against the BBC and the New Statesman, seven days into a High Court hearing. He had earlier been granted legal aid, later suspended on the advice of one of his own barristers.

Dr Sharp was struck off by the General Medical Council in November 1989, who said he had "held out false hopes as to the outcome or treatment of an experimental nature for HIV associated conditions".

The third case, involving the then managing director of the clinic, Philip Barker, who was suing for malicious falsehood, was struck out by Mr Justice Alliott on 26 June, after the judge said there was not a "scintilla" of evidence of malice.

Duncan Campbell, the journalist who wrote the New Statesman article, said the defendants had "abused the legal system as a means of punishing those who expose them without winning a single part of their case".

The BBC's cost are estimated at between pounds 600,000 and pounds 800,000, with the New Statesman's at a "five-figure sum".