Libel victory for hypnotist McKenna

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The Independent Online

Hypnotist Paul McKenna today won his libel action over a claim that he bought a fake doctorate.

The ruling on liability - with the question of damages to follow in October - followed a trial at which he said that he had been made a "laughing stock".

McKenna, whose self-help business has an annual turnover of £2.5 million, was not at London's High Court for the ruling.

He said that he was "pilloried" by journalist Victor Lewis-Smith from 1997 onwards and was devastated by another mention of his "bogus degree" from La Salle University, Louisiana, in an October 2003 article in The Mirror.

In it, Lewis-Smith, said: "I discovered that anyone could be fully doctored by Lasalle within months (no previous qualifications needed), just so long as they could answer the following question correctly: "Do you have 2,615 dollars, sir?".

The newspaper's publishers, who denied libel and pleaded justification, called evidence from Lewis-Smith's co-writer, Paul Sparks, who said that he was told by La Salle that he could obtain a doctorate for that fee within a matter of months and without undertaking any formal course.

Mr Justice Eady, who heard the case without a jury, said today that he could not accept that the newspaper had discharged the burden of proving that the sting of the words complained of was substantially true.

"Mr McKenna was not, in my judgment, dishonest and, for that matter, whatever one may think of the academic quality of his work, or of the degree granted by La Salle, it would not be accurate to describe it as "bogus".

"It was certainly not granted 'merely' for money (or even 'in effect' merely for money).

"The claimant is therefore entitled to succeed on liability."

McKenna's counsel, Desmond Browne QC, said that it emerged, in 1996, that La Salle was accredited by a body called the Council for post-secondary Christian education, which was a fraudulent creation of the university's founder, Thomas Kirk.

McKenna did not know this until after he had submitted his final project for the hypnotherapy doctorate.

Mr Browne said: "The judge who sentenced Thomas Kirk referred to the innocent victims of this fraud, and one of them was Mr McKenna."

McKenna, 42, of Drayson Mews, west London, said he was exempted from seven course units because of his prior learning over 10 years supported by additional material, and had produced an original thesis which became the tape set Success For Life.

Mr Browne said that as La Salle offered extensive literature, interaction with its students, and an unwillingness to take every applicant or to sanction every proposal for a thesis, it was impossible to find that McKenna was "aware" that his doctorate was fraudulent.

Whatever might be the validity of criticism of La Salle's academic standards, the fact was that the evidence had shown quite clearly that it was not a "diploma mill".

He argued: "The defence case is shot through, utterly torpedoed below the water-line."

The newspaper's QC, John Kelsey-Fry, said: "McKenna is an intelligent man. We suggest that such a man could not conceivably have believed that the programme he undertook could legitimately have placed him in the ranks of upper academia.

"What he wanted was not betterment, education and study but the three letters (PhD) he was seeking and which he got. He wanted them for sound commercial reasons."

McKenna was awarded his costs in the action and the judge ordered the newspaper to pay interim costs of £75,000.

Earlier, he was told by counsel for the parties that they were keen to resolve the question of the amount of damages to be paid without the need for a further court hearing.

In his written ruling, the judge commented that there had no doubt been opportunities for sensible compromise and setting the record straight in the case, yet the two sides seemed to have been "determined to fight themselves to a standstill".

He said the costs were "no doubt massive" on both sides.

McKenna said later in a statement: "I am delighted with the verdict and very relieved that this matter has finally been put to rest.

"When Victor Lewis-Smith first claimed that I was misleading the public about the legitimacy of my US degree, I wrote to the Daily Mirror explaining it was untrue.

"Unfortunately, Victor Lewis-Smith then chose to repeat these damaging allegations eight more times.

"Despite this, I asked the Mirror for nothing more than a correction. It was only because of their absolute refusal to do so that I had no choice but to take the matter to court, whereupon the Mirror's lawyer threatened to ruin me personally and financially.

"I nonetheless felt I had to bring this case to restore my reputation and protect the livelihoods of those who work for me."

The judge said that one of the clearest indications of McKenna's sincerity - and perhaps also of his naivety - had been the determination with which he had pursued the claim.

He said it was quite apparent while McKenna was in the witness box that he was not trying to "hoodwink" the court.

"He was determined, indignant, and manifestly proud of his work (whatever anybody else may think of it), which he regards as original and as having made a practical contribution to improving the lives of many people.

"Whether it is appropriate to characterise it as scholarship worthy of academic recognition is another matter. No doubt many would think not.

"But one thing which is entirely clear to me is that Mr McKenna to this day does not believe it was bogus or that he misled anyone in allowing himself to be referred to as a 'PhD'."

He added that it was always necessary, when assessing McKenna's state of mind, to recall just how little he knew about the academic world.

McKenna, a dyslexic, had told the court that his early academic career was not successful - he had achieved two O-Levels, one CSE and an A-Level in art.

The judge said that it was "crystal clear" to this day that McKenna quite sincerely believed that the PhD, albeit unaccredited but lawfully conferred upon him, was earned by his own original work.

He concluded that McKenna was granted a degree by La Salle, for what it was worth - as to which opinions clearly differed.

He valued it and was not seeking to deceive anyone by making reference to it himself or permitting others to do so.