Chris Packham awarded £90,000 in “tiger fraud” defamation claim

Chris Packham CBE, the well-known naturalist, television presenter and campaigner, has been awarded £90,000 in damages in respect of defamatory allegations published about him in Country Squire Magazine and on social media.  Mr Packham claimed against Dominic Wightman, Editor of Country Squire Magazine; Nigel Bean, an author of some of the articles complained of; and Paul Read, a bylined proof-reader of some of the articles complained of. 

The allegations published were, in summary, that:

  • Mr Packham had dishonestly raised funds from the public by stating that tigers had been rescued from a circus where they had been mis-treated, whereas in fact (as Mr Packham knew) the tigers had been well treated and had been donated by the circus;

  • Mr Packham lied when he said that gamekeepers on two Scottish estates were burning peat during the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, when he knew that was untrue; and

  • At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Packham dishonestly sought to raise funds for the Wildheart Sanctuary by appealing for donations whilst concealing that the Trust that ran it was due to receive a £500,000 pay-out under its insurance.

In a preliminary issues judgment handed down in March 2022, Johnson J determined that these allegations were defamatory of Mr Packham at common law, and were allegations of fact.

Mr Wightman and Mr Bean sought to rely on defences of truth (s.2 Defamation Act 2013) and publication on matter of public interest (s.4 Defamation Act 2013).  During the trial, Mr Wightman and Mr Bean withdrew their truth defence in relation to the “peat burning” and “insurance fraud” allegations.  They maintained a truth defence in relation to the “tiger fraud” allegation, and maintained a s.4 defence in relation to all of the allegations.

In a judgment handed down on 25 May, Saini J rejected Mr Wightman’s and Mr Bean’s defences.  As to what remained of the truth defence, he held that they had “fail[ed] to come even close to establishing the substantial truth” of the “tiger fraud” allegation (at [135]).  He concluded (at [137]) that “Mr Packham did not lie and each of his own statements was made with a genuine belief in its truth.  There was no fraud of any type committed by him in making the fundraising statements”.  The s.4 defence also failed “by some margin” (at [161]).  The Judge held that, “rather than approaching the task with an investigative mind, these Defendants targeted Mr Packham as a person against whom they had an agenda” (at [161]).  In particular, following receipt of Mr Packham’s initial legal complaint, the articles published by Mr Wightman and Mr Bean “gave way… to increasingly hyperbolic and vitriolic smearing of Mr Packham” (at [163]). 

Mr Read withdrew his reliance on the truth and s.4 defences when he instructed separate legal representation shortly before trial, and his case, which the Court accepted, became solely that: (i) as a mere proof-reader, he was not an “editor” of the articles complained of for the purposes of s.1 Defamation Act 1996 (or, accordingly, s.10 Defamation Act 2013) (at [60]-[64]); and (ii) his retweets of the defamatory allegations had not been published sufficiently widely to sustain Mr Packham’s inferential case on serious reputational harm (at [75]).  The Court did not consider it necessary, in those circumstances, to determine whether Mr Read was a statutory “author” or “editor” of his retweets or of the material to which they linked (at [66]).

In fixing the award of damages against Mr Wightman and Mr Bean, the Court accepted that their “unsubstantiated claims would have misled and agitated vocal and sometimes violent groups”, who “posted threatening and vile material about Mr Packham and his family online” (at [194]).  Most seriously, they had advanced an allegation that Mr Packham had forged a death threat letter to himself, when there was plainly no proper basis for doing so.  The Court held that Mr Packham did not write the death threat letter, concluding that “even a cursory examination of the handwriting in the death threat and comparison with a true sample of Mr Packham’s handwriting demonstrates obvious differences between the two” (at [197]).  The Court had also expected the handwriting expert instructed by Mr Wightman, Mr Bean and Mr Read to have been “horrified… and to have unequivocally withdrawn their evidence” when it emerged that their report, which concluded with certainty that Mr Packham wrote the death threat, had in fact analysed samples of his accountant’s handwriting (at [200]).  However, Mr Wightman, Mr Bean and Mr Read did not withdraw the allegation when this error was pointed out to them in November 2022.  Moreover, the Court held that Mr Wightman was instrumental in procuring ostensibly third-party statements repeating the serious allegation (at [203]).

Jonathan Price and Claire Overman instructed by Leigh Day, acted for Mr Packham.