Newspaper lawyer defends article against Shehbaz in UK court

Published February 6, 2021
PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif addresses a press conference in London. — DawnNewsTV/File
PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif addresses a press conference in London. — DawnNewsTV/File

LONDON: A lawyer representing the British newspaper Daily Mail in a defamation case filed by Shehbaz Sharif has told a judge that the publication’s evidence against the politician is “pretty limited”, but that it stands by the claims made in its article.

The preliminary hearing on Friday was related to the case filed against the publisher of Daily Mail for a story that alleged Mr Sharif and his family had siphoned off UK’s aid money.

The paper alleged in a 2019 story that he misappropriated UK taxpayers’ money, in particular government aid intended for the victims of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

Justice Matthew Nicklin presided over the ‘meaning hearing’ at the Queen’s Bench division to decide the meaning of the words complained of in the claim brought by Leader of the Opposition in National Assembly.

After hearing arguments from lawyers of both parties, Justice Nicklin said that, as regards Mr Sharif, the natural ordinary meaning taken by readers from the article is that Mr Sharif was party to, and principal beneficiary of, money laundering of tens of millions of pounds which represented proceeds of embezzlement.

Admits paper has ‘pretty limited’ evidence against PML-N leader

Justice Nicklin said Chase Level 1 was applied in Shehbaz Sharif’s case, which meant that the publisher would have to prove that he is guilty of the act he has been accused of in the article.

The term ‘Chase levels’ is derived from a 2002 ruling by the Court of Appeal in London that relates to three types of defamatory allegations. The first of these allegations is that the claimant is guilty of the act, the second is that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the claimant is guilty of the act, and the third is that there are grounds to investigate whether the claimant has committed the act.

The preliminary hearing is not a ruling on the defamation claim. The trial in the coming months will determine if the story was in fact defamatory according to the law.

The Mail lawyer defended the publication of the article, saying it was “in the public interest” and that it is common for investigations to be carried out after such stories are published.

Shehbaz Sharif, who filed the suit when he was in London last year, is claiming damages as well as an injunction restraining the newspaper from publishing the ‘defamatory words’.

He is also claiming that the paper publish the findings of the court summary and bear the cost of proceedings.

The story in question was written by British reporter David Rose, who alleged that Mr Sharif and his family “stole” UK public funds meant for earthquake victims in Pakistan and cited unnamed investigators as saying the family was laundering the money in Britain.

After the story was published, the PML-N president accused the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government of feeding ‘fake news’ to the tabloid. He named Prime Minister Imran Khan and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Accountability Shahzad Akbar as having been behind the report and vowed to take legal action against the paper and the government officials.

At the time, the PM’s aide had dismissed Mr Sharif’s remarks about the ‘politically-motivated story’, and said he was willing to place evidence of the alleged corruption before London courts.

The British government, however, denies the claims in the story, as its Department for International Development (DfID) said the funds and programme were audited and verified.

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2021

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