Chris Packham says libel victory is ‘vindication’ in online abuse fight

Springwatch presenter calls for tougher measures against trolls in Online Safety Bill

Jess Glass
Thursday 25 May 2023 16:58 BST
Chris Packham wants improvements to the Online Safety Bill after his libel win
Chris Packham wants improvements to the Online Safety Bill after his libel win (PA)

Environmentalist Chris Packham has welcomed a High Court ruling as “a full and frank vindication of my innocence” after he was accused of defrauding the public.

The TV naturalist sued three men for libel over nine articles that included claims he “manipulated” people into donating to rescue five tigers while knowing the animals had been well looked after.

Dominic Wightman, editor of the online site Country Squire Magazine, defended the libel claim along with writer Nigel Bean and a third man, Paul Read.

Mr Justice Saini ruled in Mr Packham’s favour against Mr Wightman and Mr Bean but dismissed his claim against Mr Read – who had said he was a “mere proofreader” of some of the articles.

Outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Mr Packham described the allegations he had faced.

“In the offending articles and tweets they accused me of defrauding the public to raise money to rescue tigers from circuses, defrauding the public by promoting a crowd-funder during the Covid epidemic, lying about the burning of peat during Cop26, writing a death threat letter to myself, and elsewhere of bullying, sexual misconduct and rape,” he said.

“They also accused me of faking an arson attack at my home and repeatedly called upon the BBC to sack me.

Chris Packham outside the Royal Courts of Justice on Thursday (PA)

“In a full and frank vindication of my innocence, the court has found that ‘Mr Packham did not lie and each of his own statements was made with a genuine belief in its truth’.”

But the Springwatch presenter said the issue of online abuse would “vanish overnight”.

“The onslaught of abuse and hatred continues simply because I want reform, I want the world to be a healthier place for wildlife, wild animal welfare, domestic animal welfare, the environment, so on and so forth,” he said.

“And there are people who have a vested interest in preventing that reform.”

In his 58-page judgment, Mr Justice Saini awarded £90,000 in damages to Mr Packham, which the presenter said would be going to charity.

“What we’ve seen here is the exposure of an agenda, of a calculated campaign,” Mr Packham said, adding that the damages would be put “firmly in the hands of those charities that are going to be doing good work for wild animal welfare.”

Packham speaks to reporters after winning his case against a magazine that accused him of misleading the public (PA)

He later said the law needs to be reformed and that the planned Online Safety Bill must be “significantly robust” against online abuse.

Draft legislation, currently going through the House of Lords, aims to keep people, especially youngsters, secure in the cyber world by imposing new legal duties on big tech companies and service providers.

“Every day at this moment, people across this country and all over the world are suffering online abuse, and it’s ruining their lives, their livelihoods, their businesses, some people end up taking their own life, their mental health is damaged, their education is ruined – it cannot continue, the law has to be reformed,” Mr Packham said.

“And at the moment, the only recourse is to take civil action here, which is what I’ve done.

“I hope I’ve drawn a line in the sand, I hope I’ve shown a degree of strength and resilience, which others will be able to draw into their lives so that they will be able to stand up against this online hatred, which really does need to be regulated.

“The government’s Online Safety Bill needs to be robust, significantly robust, particularly to support young people who are continually exposed to all sorts of problems online, which again, are extremely damaging at that point in their lives.”

David Price KC, for Paul Read who successfully defended the claim, said: “The judgment is an important recognition that the serious harm hurdle is meaningful, which will benefit all social media users on all subjects, and that people with limited involvement in an article should not be sued when the author and editor are available.”

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