Louis Walsh, the music impresario and X Factor judge, has won a £400,000 libel settlement against The Sun for a false story about a sexual assault which he claimed arose after the newspaper paid his accuser to make a statement to police.
The out-of-court deal, revealed on the eve of publication of the Leveson report, was reached after Mr Walsh sued Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers for damages over an article published by The Sun last year under the headline “Louis probed over ‘sex attack’ on man in loo”.
It emerged within days of publication that Mr Walsh’s accuser, unemployed dance teacher Leonard Watters, had fabricated his claim that he had been groped in a Dublin nightclub after a Westlife concert in April 2011.
Watters was jailed for six months in July for making false reports to police and issued a public apology to the 60-year-old music mogul, who has become a household name in Britain and America for his role on the judging panel of the X Factor.
In a hearing before the Irish High Court yesterday, a lawyer for The Sun and its sister Irish title, which originated the story, said its report had been based on its understanding that Mr Walsh was being investigated by police for the assault.
Eoin McCullogh, for NGN, which publishes The Sun, said: “We fully accept that the alleged assault did not occur in the first place and Louis Walsh is entirely innocent of any such assault. The Sun unreservedly apologises to Louis Walsh for any distress caused to him as a result of our article.”
It is understood The Sun argued its payment to Mr Watters was not conditional on him approaching police.
But in submissions to the court, lawyers for Mr Walsh alleged that a crime correspondent for the Irish Sun had bought Mr Watters dinner at a Dublin hotel in June last year and agreed to pay him after he made a complaint against Mr Walsh about the invented encounter at Krystle, a celebrity nightclub.
The court documents also alleged that after Mr Watters made his statement to police in Dublin he was paid 700 euros (£565) with a promise of further payment after the story was published. Mr Walsh was questioned under caution following the article but Mr Watters then withdrew his complaint after being shown CCTV footage which forced him to admit it had been made up.
Mr Walsh, whose substantial 500,000 euro settlement will also see NGN pay his legal costs of 180,000 euros, said he was “very relieved” at the paper’s admissions. Speaking outside the court, he said: “ I’m very satisfied with this total vindication for me, but I remain very angry at the treatment I received at the hands of The Sun.”
The impresario’s lawyer, Paul Tweed, said the case had implications for the findings of Lord Justice Leveson because it showed the damage that could be wrought to an individual’s reputation in the age of the internet and called for a regulator with the power to postpone publication of stories for 24 hours so they could be challenged.
Mr Tweed said: “The serious consequences of worldwide dissemination online of a defamatory story is a fundamental problem which Lord Justice Leveson’s report will hopefully address on the principle that prevention is always better than cure.”