Libel trial puts BBC's reputation in the dock

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The Independent Online

Elite, one of the world's leading model agencies, will today challenge the BBC's reputation for honesty and integrity in a libel case involving allegations of under-age sex and drugs abuse against some of its senior executives.

Undercover reporter Donal MacIntyre's portrayal of the agency's executives as openly admitting using drugs and alcohol to secure sex with under-age models is said by Elite to be based on lies created by dishonest editing.

The impact of MacIntyre Undercover was such that after the programme two senior staff at Elite, including its European president Gerald Marie, ex-husband of the model Linda Evangelista, were suspended. They were later reinstated.

Mr Marie claimed he was framed when a crew secretly filmed him apparently offering an undercover reporter £300 for sex, and bragging about plans to sleep with the finalists of a modelling contest.

Elite will contest that the programme was dishonestly edited and unfairly portrayed its role in the fashion industry, after MacIntyre posed as a photographer to film the documentary. The BBC denies the claims.Elite issued a writ within weeks of the show being broadcast in November 1999, when an audience of 10 million saw it. The BBC handed unused film to the agency last summer. Elite is claiming £1.7m in damages.

In a preliminary hearing in April Mr Justice Eady, the judge presiding over the case, said he was "deeply troubled" by allegations that a BBC producer had threatened a potential witness in the libel trial. A lawyer for Elite alleged in the hearing that Mr Ali had tried to "put the frighteners" on Fabio Bonazza, a potential witness based at the agency's Paris branch.

The producer, Faisal Ali, it was alleged, falsely told the Elite worker on secretly taped evidence heard by the court that the BBC had evidence of him arranging sex with young girls, but would discard it if he gave inside information about his employers.

Desmond Browne QC, responding for the BBC, denied that there had been an attempt to threaten or blackmail witnesses. He said Mr Ali had wanted to make it clear that the BBC was not interested in Mr Bonazza but rather wanted to go after the "big fish" at Elite.

In a statement read out to the court, Mr Ali said: "I would like to state sincerely that I did not intend to exert undue pressure, let alone threaten Mr Bonazza."