Sunday Times protected by Parliamentary privilege, says High Court

The Sunday Times did not libel a man accused of "association with the IRA's dirty money" in an investigation into his business interests, the High Court ruled on Wednesday.

Peter Curistan, a businessman in Northern Ireland, sued Sunday Times owner Times Newspapers for defamation over a story which appeared in the paper on February 2006 and on its website since then.

The article was prompted by claims made about Curistan in the House of Commons by Democtratic Unionist MP Peter Robinson. Parliamentary privilege protects claims made in Parliament from libel proceedings, and that extends to articles reporting remarks made in the Commons, as long as the report is a fair and accurate report of proceedings in Parliament.

The Sunday Times reproduced some, but not all, of Robinson's remarks, and used them as a launch point for an investigation into the business interests of Curistan.

The story told how Robinson had used Parliamentary privilege to link Curistan to Dessie Mackin, the head of finance at Sinn Fein, whom he said was the head of finance at the IRA. Mackin has been convicted of membership of the IRA.

The story said that Robinson identified 23 companies in which Mackie and Curistan are jointly involved, seven of which were prosecuted recently in Dublin for failing to keep proper accounts, a claim to which the firms pleaded guilty.

In response to Robinson's remarks, Curistan said that Robinson could appoint an auditor to go over his firms' books and that the accounts had been audited every year by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and passed every year with any qualification.

The Sunday Times investigation found that accounts for Curistan company Sheridan Millenium Ltd had been subject to statements of qualification for 2002 and 2003. In 2002 PwC wrote in the accounts that "we were unable to determine whether proper accounting records had been kept". In 2003, the Sunday Times said, the accounts contained a qualification that: "we have not obtained the information and explanations that we considered necessary for the purpose of our audit".

"A newspaper can repeat with impunity a libel which was originally published in circumstances of parliamentary privilege. The problem here is that the Sunday Times did not confine itself to reporting what Mr Robinson said," said Mr Justice Gray in his ruling. "His accusation is coupled in the first paragraph of the article with the newspaper's own allegation that the claimant falsely claimed that accountants had given him a clean bill of health.

"[Parts of the story] raise serious questions – to put it at its lowest – as to the claimant's integrity," said Gray. "In these various ways the newspaper, as I repeat it had every right to do, considerably fleshed out and enlarged upon what had been said in the House of Commons."

Gray had to rule on two questions. Firstly, did the article mean that Curistan was guilty of involvement in money laundering and financial malpractice, or just that there were reasonable grounds to suspect it?

Then he said he would rule on the question of whether the article as a whole, and not just the Robinson remarks, were protected by Parliamentary privilege.

"Nowhere in the article is it said in terms that the claimant is a money launderer for the IRA or that he has been associated with the IRA's 'dirty money'," said Gray. "Any such conclusions would, I accept, be inferences. Are they inferences which the ordinary reasonable reader would draw? I answer that question in the affirmative. Although the claimant's rebuttal features with some prominence in the article, virtually everything which follows casts doubt on the truth of that rebuttal."

Having ruled that the article does say that Curistan was guilty, Gray went on to consider whether or not that was protected. "I must decide whether the extraneous material added by the newspaper in the article has the effect of rendering the article as a whole substantially lacking in the qualities of fairness and accuracy on which the privilege depends," he said.

"In my view there is a clear and real nexus between what Mr Robinson said in the House on the one hand and the additional material included in the Sunday Times article alongside reporting of Mr Robinson's speech," said Gray. "This is not a case of gratuitous or collateral or irrelevant commentary being published alongside the privileged material. I conclude that the passages in the Sunday Times article are protected by qualified privilege as being a fair and accurate report of proceedings in parliament."