McKenna sues after newspaper article said he was a fraud

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The Independent Online

The hypnotist Paul McKenna is suing for libel over a newspaper article in which he was "pilloried as a fraud".

Mr McKenna, who has built up a lucrative business selling self-help books and advising corporate clients, is taking legal action against the Daily Mirror over a claim that he bought a "bogus degree" from a US university. The Mirror denies libel.

The 43-year-old complained that the former Mirror journalist Victor Lewis-Smith attacked his reputation on 10 occasions dating back to 1997. At the centre of his lawsuit is an article published in the Mirror in October 2003, under the headline: "It's a load of doc and bull", in which Mr Lewis-Smith questioned the worth of a doctorate obtained by McKenna from Lasalle University in Louisiana.

He wrote: "I discovered that anyone could be fully doctored by Lasalle within months (no previous qualifications needed), just so long as they could answer the following question correctly: 'Do you have 2,615 dollars, Sir?'"

Desmond Browne QC, representing Mr McKenna, argued that his client had been the innocent victim of a fraud, believing his doctorate to be accredited by a recognised body.

He told the judge, Mr Justice Eady, who is hearing the case without a jury because of the complexity of the paperwork involved, that the case had only come to court because of the "intransigence" of the Mirror.

When the article was published, Mr McKenna went to the Press Complaints Commission, which decided in favour of the newspaper, saying the article was clearly presented as the journalist's own opinion. Mr Browne said that the PCC had ignored the fact that the piece defamed his client. He said that Mr McKenna, who is dyslexic, had signed up for a PhD at Lasalle to compensate for his failure at school. Mr Browne said that, far from being able to buy a doctorate, his client's application was initially rejected. In late 1996, however, it emerged that the Council for Post Secondary Christian Education, which accredited courses at Lasalle, was in fact a fraudulent body set up by its founder Thomas Kirk. The FBI and the US Department of Justice investigated the institution, concluding that Kirk was guilty of fraud. "The judge who sentenced Thomas Kirk referred to the innocent victims of this fraud, and one of them was Mr McKenna," said Mr Browne.

He added: "Victor Lewis-Smith and the Mirror pilloried Mr McKenna as a fraud, claiming that he had a doctorate to which he had no honest entitlement. They can't prove that to be true."

The trial is expected to last more than a week, with Mr McKenna giving evidence tomorrow. Mr Lewis-Smith will not be attending as two members of his family are seriously ill.