'Sunday Times' loses libel case over C4 'hoax'

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A Channel 4 film maker, who produced a controversial documentary on a top-level loyalist conspiracy to murder Catholics in Northern Ireland, won his libel battle against The Sunday Times yesterday after the newspaper failed to prove the non-existence of a clandestine committee of politicians, police officers and lawyers featured in the programme.

After a nine-week trial at the High Court in London, the jury ruled that the newspaper could not prove that Sean McPhilemy's Dispatches programme, which claimed that senior loyalists and RUC officers colluded with paramilitaries in four murders, was a "hoax".

They awarded Mr McPhilemy £145,000 in damages after dismissing the newspaper's claim that the programme maker deliberately set out to mislead viewers or was reckless with the truth.

The libel action related to an article in The Sunday Times in May 1993, written by Liam Clarke, accusing the programme makers of "producing little more than a collage of unsubstantiated rumours and fabrications". The Sunday Express settled an earlier action in 1996 for an estimated £50,000.

After the verdict Mr McPhilemy, 52, said: "I brought this action against The Sunday Times to prove that I am an honest journalist. The jury's verdict has now shown that I am. The Sunday Times article was false and ought never to have been written or published."

Channel 4 said in a statement: "Channel 4 is pleased that The Sunday Times's long-running campaign against this programme and its producers has finally been exposed as unfounded. This verdict confirms how everyone involved in making the programme acted with integrity throughout."

The Sunday Times, which faces an estimated £1m bill for costs, is considering an appeal. In a statement, it said: "Nineteen out of the 21 alleged members of the committee appeared in court for The Sunday Times. They stated their innocence and their evidence was not challenged. In these circumstances the jury's verdict causes obvious concern."

The Dispatches programme, "The Committee", screened in 1991, caused a furore after interviewing an anonymous source who claimed an Ulster Central Co-ordinating Committee met regularly with loyalist paramilitaries with the collusion of an RUC "inner force".

The man, known as Source A, alleged the RUC colluded in the shootings of Pat Finucane, a Catholic solicitor, in Belfast in February 1989; a teenager sitting in a car with his girlfriend in Co Armagh, in 1990; four men at a Provisional IRA meeting place in Co Tyrone in 1991; and three people at a mobile shop in Co Armagh in 1991.

Channel 4 and Box Productions were fined £75,000 after refusing to identify him, but he was later named as Jim Sands, a loyalist fanatic. Mr Sands wrote a book about the alleged collusion, which named members of the committee.