The Sunday Times yesterday claimed a victory for press freedom after a judge rejected a libel claim brought by a London businessman who the newspaper had named as an organized crime boss.
David Hunt, 52, sued the paper over a 2010 article that alleged that he ran a criminal network "so vast that Scotland Yard regards him as 'too big' to take on".
But Mr Justice Simon threw out the claim and praised the work of Sunday Times investigative journalist Michael Gillard, the author of the story. "I am satisfied that it was reasonable for [Gillard] to describe the Claimant as a violent and dangerous criminal and the head of an [Organised Crime Gang] implicated in murder, drug trafficking and fraud," he said.
Martin Ivens, acting editor of the Sunday Times, said: "This expensive and risky libel battle against a notorious crime figure in East London was made possible by the courage of investigative journalist Michael Gillard and several witnesses. Hunt has been brought to justice by a libel action where the authorities have failed for more than two decades. The judgment highlights the role of journalism for the public good."
Hunt's attempts to clear his name only resulted in a spotlight being shone on his murky past. The court heard that he had grown up in Canning Town in London's East End as one of 13 children and, in his early Twenties, joined a gang called The Snipers who were involved in serious crime.
The court also heard that Gillard had based his report on police documents including a "Threat to Life Report" made in 2008 to a Borough Commander of the Metropolitan Police and referring to investigations conducted by Scotland Yard. "Throughout Operation Epsom and Operation Houdini there have been repeated examples of the Hunt organisation's ability to carry out murder, intimidation and acts of extreme violence," it stated: "I have no doubt that David Hunt has the motive, means and capability of funding this contract to kill. He runs his criminal network by use of extreme violence."
Another police document revealed to the court referred to further intelligence gathered in the police's Operation Epsom. It said Hunt was "supported by a number of paid heavies and together they instil fear in their victims." It added that Hunt had "a large number of associates willing to work for him, and despite a wealth of intelligence dating back approximately 20 years, police appear to have a very poor success rate in developing and progressing this into prosecution material."
An intelligence report for the police's Operation Houdini investigation found that Hunt's organisation had gained power in the 1980s "with the popularity of the drug scene increasing…with acid house parties and the UK being targeted by cocaine cartels". It said: "David Hunt went from strength to strength making large amounts of money from these activities in the process of gaining a reputation of a hard man who would stop at nothing to get results even resulting [sic] to murder if required."
In examination of Mr Gillard, Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing the Claimant, had suggested that "the best you can say" was that "a lot of police officers have made serious allegations against Mr Hunt". The reporter went through his evidence and argued that there was "crushing detail" in the documents that he had obtained. "When I put all this together, I take the view that there is truth in the allegation that he is the head of an organised crime group."
The judge said Gillard was a "highly-experienced journalist" and praised his reporting. "He came across as extremely self-confident, but also thoughtful about the role of investigative journalism, and clear and persuasive in his views about the proper treatment of the information he discovered," he said. "His evidence was both lucid and entirely credible."
The newspaper did not prove that Hunt Was head of an organised crime network that was involved in murder and drug trafficking, the judge found.
News UK, publisher of the Sunday Times, has invested considerable resources in fighting the long-running action. Hunt also brought proceedings against the London Evening Standard, which is owned by the Lebedev family, which also owns the Independent titles.
Mr Justice Simon said that had Hunt been successful, and been a man of good character, he would have awarded him £250,000 in damages. But instead he rejected the libel claim.
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