Turcu v News Group Newspapers Ltd (No.2)
Reference:  EWHC 799 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Eady J
Date of judgment: 4 May 2005
Summary: Libel - Justification - Video evidence - Privilege against self-incrimination - CFAs
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Adam Wolanski QC (Defendant)
Instructing Solicitors: Farrer & Co for the Defendant
A Romanian who entered UK under an assumed name sued the News of the World over allegations that he was party to a conspiracy to kidnap Victoria Beckham. The Defendants pleaded justification. The trial proceeded in unusual circumstances. The Claimant was absent from the country during the trial depriving the Defendants of the opportunity to cross-examine him and to substantiate his case that the journalists dishonestly fabricated evidence. The Defendants, whose journalists had inflitrated the ‘gang’, relied on video evidence demonstrating the Claimant’s participation in certain serious crimes and suggesting a plan to kidnap Victoria Beckham. One protagonist relied on by the Claimant to explain the tapes invoked the privilege against self-incrimination and gave no evidence.
Whether the following allegations were substantially true:
(i) There was a dangerous criminal gang; (ii) The Claimant was a member of that gang; (iii) The gang was planning to kidnap Victoria Beckham; and (iv) The Claimant was involved in that planning; and whether the ransom and kidnap plans were real, contemplated crimes and not part of an elaborate deception or ‘sting’.
Upholding the defence of justification as substantially if not wholly true,
(1) The Claimant was willing to participate in criminal activities and to make a contribution, in particular, to the discussions about the proposed Beckham kidnap.
(2) The Claimant’s case that the Defence evidence amounted to ‘idle pub banter’ was unconvincing. The hoax explanation needed to be fully explained from the witness box and tested in cross-examination. There had not been a ‘set up’ on the part of the News of the World. (3) There was no ‘gang’ but a loose association of criminals who worked together when it suited them. The Claimant himself was found to be a petty criminal. (4) There were inaccuracies and sloppy reporting in that the kidnap plot was hardly an advanced plan, but these did disturb the fact that the Defendant had justified the ‘core of the libel’. (5) The investigative journalist had not ‘picked on asylum seekers’ and this allegation was merely a flawed vehicle to aggravate damages.
There was little the Claimant could do to counteract the video footage. He had returned to Romania before the trial leaving his advocate to proceed on instructions given before departure. This aspect clearly troubled the Judge as the Claimant could give no evidence himself. Nor did the only other protagonist who could have done so; Dr Pasaraenu, whose witness summons was discharged by the Judge on grounds of self-incrimination. The case is bound to bring CFA funded cases right back into the spotlight.