Dempster judged `inept' over libel against baron

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The Independent Online
Nigel Dempster, the Daily Mail's gossip columnist, was labelled "inept" by a High Court judge yesterday and fined pounds 10,000 for contempt of court for repeating a libel against millionaire Steven Bentinck.

Mr Dempster's employer, Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail, was also fined pounds 25,000 and faces costs estimated at pounds 20,000. The fines come on top of pounds 50,000 paid into court for Baron Bentinck in settlement of the original 1995 libel.

Judge Richard Walker ruled that Mr Dempster (right) and the newspaper were in contempt of court for breaching an undertaking made in 1995 not to repeat the claim that Baron Bentinck had been mean to his estranged wife. The Baron claimed that a Dempster column in August this year, which asserted that the baroness had received a "tax-free pounds 5,000 a month settlement but no lump sum", repeated the libel.

The newspaper argued that no breach had occurred because the words complained of in the second item did not amount to an allegation of meanness. But the judge ruled yesterday that the second article did allege meanness on the part of Baron Bentinck, although on a "lesser scale" than in the first, and that its publication was a breach of the undertaking.

Judge Walker said he was not satisfied that Mr Dempster had wilfully and deliberately broken the undertaking and concluded that his conduct in publishing the item may have been attributable to "ineptitude and negligence". Otherwise, he said, the sentence would have been stiffer.

Mr Dempster left the court without comment but Baron Bentinck said "My only regret is that there was not a token sojourn at Her Majesty's pleasure which might have had a more calming effect on future publications."