Express owner takes on investigative journalist

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The Independent Online

One man is a billionaire newspaper proprietor who values his reputation as one of the toughest negotiators in the business. The other is an investigative journalist who loves to rip the facade off the rich and powerful to show what they are really like.

Yesterday, Richard Desmond, owner of the Daily and Sunday Express, and the writer Tom Bower met in the Royal Courts of Justice, in a libel case which could hinge on whether accusing a newspaper proprietor of interfering in the content of his newspaper, or implying that he is not as tough as people think, is defamatory.

Mr Desmond is suing for libel over for a claim made in a book by Mr Bower that he set off a battle of wills with a business rival, Lord Black of Crossharbour, former owner of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, by ordering a journalist to write an article alleging that Black's company was in such a bad shape that a bank had withdrawn its credit. In his 2006 book "Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge", Bower claimed that the resulting apology that Desmond agreed to publish, was a "victory" for Lord Black against "a tough operator", which showed that "grinding his critics into the dust had never failed".

Desmond denies that he was behind the offending article, saying that he knew nothing about it until after it had appeared in print. He also denies that he was humiliated or ground into the dust. Bower claims that what he wrote was true and not defamatory.

Ian Winter QC, for Desmond, told the jury in a London high court that it was "highly damaging" to Desmond's reputation as a businessman to have it suggested that "his supposed toughness is a charade" or that "you can crush him very easily." He added: "If anyone climbed down in the mediation, it was Lord Black - it was not Mr Desmond."

Although Lord Black's name featured prominently in yesterday's hearing, he will not be giving evidence in the case, because he is in a US prison, serving a six and a half year prison sentence for fraud. Bower specialises in writing unauthorised and unflattering biographies of the rich and powerful. Past subjects include Gordon Brown, Mohammed Fayad, and Robert Maxwell. He won a libel battle against Richard Branson seven years ago. He began work on his book about Black in October 2005.

Mr Winter told the jury that the book was an "expose" designed to show that Lord Black's life, from his school days, had been "a single trajectory heading to the penitentiary" and that the story about Desmond would not have been included unless it appeared to fit the general picture Bower was trying to build up.

He said that the offending article had been written by a Sunday Express journalist, based on a report in a specialist news sheet called the International Finance Review. When Lord Black threatened to sue, Mr Desmond agreed straight away that there should be a retraction and apology, but negotiations were held up when he demanded an apology in return for an allegation in the Telegraph that the Express newspapers were "run by two ex-convicts." Mr Desmond wanted it acknowledged that he is not an ex-convict. Both apologies appeared on the same day.

Mr Winter also read out letters exchanged between the two businessmen which, he said, revealed their "arm's length respect" for one another. Mr Bower had not seen the letters because his biography was unauthorised. He but had refused to apologise when challenged by Mr Desmond over what he had written.

The case, which is being heard by Mr Justice Eady, continues today.