McKenna triumphs in 'bogus degree' libel case

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The Independent Online

The hypnotist Paul McKenna has won his libel action against a national newspaper which claimed he had knowingly bought a bogus degree to boost his career.

Mr McKenna, whose self-help business has an annual turnover of £2.5m, brought the action against the Daily Mirror, claiming its columnist Victor Lewis-Smith had "pilloried" him for six years, culminating in a mention in 2003 of his "bogus degree", a PhD from La Salle University in Louisiana.

In the newspaper article, Mr Lewis-Smith said: "I discovered that anyone could be fully doctored by La Salle within months (no previous qualifications needed) just so long as they could answer the following question correctly: Do you have $2,615, Sir?" The newspaper's publishers, who denied libel and pleaded justification, called evidence from Mr Lewis-Smith's co-writer Paul Sparks who said La Salle offered a doctorate for that fee within months and without any formal course.

At the High Court in London yesterday Mr Justice Eady ruled against the paper, saying he did not believe the hypnotist was dishonest and that his work was not bogus. "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)," he said.

Mr McKenna's counsel, Desmond Browne QC, said his client only became aware that La Salle was a fraudulent creation of its founder in 1996, after he had submitted his final project for a hypnotherapy doctorate. Mr McKenna, 42, from west London, said he was exempted from seven course units because of his prior learning over 10 years and had produced an original thesis. His counsel said that, whatever the criticism of La Salle's standards, it was not a "diploma mill".

The judge said that one of the clearest indications of Mr McKenna's sincerity was his determination to pursue the legal case. He added that it was necessary to recall how little Mr McKenna knew about the academic world. The self-help expert had told the court his early academic career was not successful - he got two O-levels, one CSE and an A-level in art.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr McKenna said: "It was not just me - 15,000 other students were defrauded. The university was tarnished but I did not just hand over a cheque and get a degree. I did the work for it and the university is licensed. The claim was that I bought the degree and hadn't done any work, that I knew it was a fraudulent degree and I did it to deceive the public. I asked [the newspaper] to withdraw the allegations. Instead they republished them again and again. Eventually, reluctantly, I had to take legal action to stop them because it was damaging my reputation."

Mr McKenna was awarded costs and the judge ordered the newspaper to make an interim payment of £75,000. Damages will be settled in October.