Film maker wins £145,000 damages

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The Independent Online

Documentary film maker Sean McPhilemy was today awarded £145,000 libel damages against The Sunday Times over an article condemning his programme about a high-level loyalist conspiracy to murder Northern Ireland Catholics as "a hoax".

At the end of a nine-week trial in London, a High Court jury held that the newspaper had failed to prove that the clandestine committee of conspirators featured in the programme did not exist.

The jurors rejected the newspaper's defence that Mr McPhilemy deliberately set out to mislead viewers, or was at least reckless as to the truth of his programme.

Mr McPhilemy, 52, wiped away tears as the verdict was announced and nodded his thanks to the jury. He was hugged by his wife and well-wishers.

The Sunday Times said later it felt it was an important case to fight and it was considering an appeal.

The programme's main witness Source A, filmed anonymously, claimed to be a member of the committee and gave details of alleged RUC collusion in four murder incidents, three of which involved totally innocent victims.

Source A claimed inside knowledge of the shootings of Catholic solicitor Pat Finucane in Belfast in February 1989; teenager Denis Carville as he sat beside his girlfriend in a car on the shore of Lough Neagh, Co Armagh, in 1990; four men at a Provisional IRA meeting place in Cappagh, Co Tyrone, in 1991; and three young people, Eileen Duffy, Katrina Rennie and Brian Frizzell, at a mobile sweet shop in Craigavon, Co Armagh, in 1991.

No committee members were named in the documentary, but Channel 4 and Mr McPhilemy's company, Box Productions, immediately handed the RUC a dossier of names.

It included leading Belfast solicitor Richard Monteith, former RUC Special Branch chief Trevor Forbes, Belfast city councillor Nelson McCausland, Presbyterian minister and Ulster independence campaigner The Rev Hugh Ross and the alleged committee chairman, Ulster Bank branch manager Billy Abernethy.

The RUC knocked on their doors and told them - to their disbelief and horror, as some of them were later to tell the High Court - that they were on the list alongside loyalist paramilitaries Billy "King Rat" Wright and Robin Jackson, known as The Jackal.

Police then tried to discover the identity of Source A. Channel 4 and Box Productions refused to reveal their source and were later fined £75,000 for contempt by the London High Court.

By that time, the RUC had discovered who he was - Jim Sands, described during the libel case as a loyalist fanatic whose presumed motive for going public about the secret committee of which he professed to be a member was to reassure unionists and warn the IRA that its campaign of violence would be countered, like for like, by loyalist paramilitaries.

Questioned by the RUC, Sands retracted his allegations, although he was later to revert to his original story that such a committee did exist.

It was in May 1993 that The Sunday Times published its article accusing the programme makers of perpetrating a hoax for which they stood accused of "producing little more than a collage of unsubstantiated rumours and fabrications".

Mr McPhilemy, his reputation blackened by the worst accusation that could be made against any journalist, sued for libel after commissioning editors turned their backs on him and his source of income dried up.

And, furious at what he saw as the RUC's continuing failure properly to investigate his allegations and its determination to shoot the messenger by pursuing the programme makers and their sources, he set about writing a book about the affair.

The Committee - Political Assassination in Northern Ireland was published in America in 1998 while the Northern Ireland peace process was under way.

In it, Mr McPhilemy named members of the committee and accused David Trimble of complicity in the murder of his own constituents by associating with the conspirators and covering up their activities.

The book was seized upon by The Sunday times as an example of its author's "cavalier and reckless" approach to the truth.

Mr McPhilemy told the court that the "highly sensitive" documentary was one of the most closely supervised programmes he had ever been involved with. Although he was sceptical about some of things Jim Sands said, extensive inquiries did not reveal anything which led either him or his programme researcher Ben Hamilton to disbelieve the central allegation.

His evidence was backed by Channel 4 witnesses who spoke of his reputation for honesty and integrity.

And he stuck by his claim that RUC collusion in murder was widespread and not just confined to a few individuals as reported by Sir John Stevens, now Metropolitan Police Commissioner, after an official inquiry.

The Sunday Times argued that the programme production team had relied on the uncorroborated testimony of a liar and fantasiser, and that glaring inconsistencies in the details given by Sands were deliberately concealed from Channel 4. The viewing public, it was claimed, was deceived by dishonest presentation and editing.

The newspaper called a mass of evidence from alleged committee members who vehemently denied any such organisation existed and spoke of their dismay and anger at being accused of multiple murder.

David Trimble, now a Nobel Peace Prize winner and First Minister of Northern Ireland's suspended parliament, told the court the allegations in the book were "grossly offensive to me and would be extremely damaging but for the fact that I have not met anybody in Northern Ireland who takes this book seriously".

Even Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had not mentioned it to him during his lengthy discussions with them at the time the book was published.

"The idea that there is a large group or committee of this nature, meeting in order to plan and direct paramilitary activities, is simply not credible," said Mr Trimble.

One of the objectionable features of the documentary was the way it mixed in references to the Ulster Independence Committee, headed by the Rev Hugh Ross, with references to the so-called murder committee.

Members of Mr Ross's committee were exposed to attack by the inference that they were involved in paramilitary activity.

"I knew people on that committee. I knew them to be decent people and their lives were placed at risk by Channel 4," said Mr Trimble.

He said there was no institutionalised collusion in the RUC. The security forces could not be accused of collusion on the basis of acts committed by a few individuals.

David Trimble is suing the book's Internet publishers, and garage chain owners David and Albert Prentice, named as committee members, are suing publishers in America.

While the libel trial was in progress, there were renewed calls on the Government for judicial inquiries to be held into suggestions that police were involved in the 1989 shooting of lawyer Pat Finucane and the murder last year of Co Armagh lawyer Rosemary Nelson, blown up by a loyalist car bomb outside her Lurgan home.

Mr McPhilemy said after the verdict: "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."

He added: "It has taken me seven years to clear my name and I would not have been able to do so without the help of many people."

He thanked his wife Kathleen and his four children who had "lived this ordeal with me for many years".

Mr McPhilemy also thanked other members of his family, his supporters, colleagues and legal team.

After the verdict 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 was ordered to pay the costs of the case estimated at well over £1 million.