Chris Packham wins libel claim over ‘tiger fraud’ allegations

Chris Packham at the Royal Courts of Justice (PA) (PA Wire)
Chris Packham at the Royal Courts of Justice (PA) (PA Wire)

Chris Packham has won his High Court libel claim over denied allegations he misled the public into donating to a wildlife charity to rescue “broken” tigers from circuses.

The BBC TV naturalist sued three men over nine articles which included claims he “manipulated” people into donating to rescue five tigers while knowing the animals were well looked after.

The strongly denied allegations, repeated in several tweets and videos, related to Mr Packham’s involvement with the Wildheart Trust, which runs a wildlife sanctuary on the Isle of Wight.

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.

In a judgment on Thursday, Mr Justice Saini ruled in Mr Packham’s favour against against Mr Wightman and Mr Bean, but dismissed his claim against Mr Read.

He said: “Mr Packham did not commit any acts of fraud or dishonesty.”

Mr Wightman and Mr Bean were ordered to pay £90,000 in damages to the TV presenter.

At a hearing earlier this month, Springwatch host Packham said he had faced “puerile, offensive, and damaging” allegations, that he had defrauded people into donating to the Wildheart Trust charity to rescue “broken” tigers while knowing they were well looked after.

His barrister Jonathan Price said Packham first made his libel claim in March 2021 over four published articles, only to find a fifth posted the following day complaining about the legal action and including links to the defamatory material.

“This case is notable for the extraordinary level of vitriol that the defendants have displayed towards (Packham)”, he said.

“The defendants have published an enormous amount of purile, offensive, and damaging material about (him), often under the guise of fundraising for their defence.”

In one of the most bizarre allegations, Packham was accused of writing a fake death threat letter to himself, in a conspiracy theory that fell apart under scrutiny.

In a scathing ruling, Mr Justice Saini found Packham had been subjected to threats from the defendants that he would be called a “rapist, a bully, and a pervert” in the course of the legal battle.

“There is not a shred of evidence in support of the offensive allegations”, he said.

“I find they were made in order to scare off Mr Packham from seeking recourse in a public hearing for the libels.”

He said Mr Wightman and Mr Bean had not come close to establishing the truth of their central allegations against Packham.

“The approach revealed by the evidence is that rather than approaching the task with an investigative mind, these defendants targeted Mr Packham as a person against whom they had an agenda”, said the judge.

“I underline that having an agenda does not, in and of itself, disqualify a person including citizen journalists… from being able to benefit from a public interest defence.

“Indeed, in general terms many publications and professional journalists approach stories with what might be called an agenda.

“However, the agenda...meant that they approached what might be facts suggesting, at the very highest, that questions might be asked about the accuracy of the fundraising statements, as proving fraud and dishonesty on the part of Mr Packham.”

The judge added: “Any investigative journalism quickly gave way, in the fifth and following articles, to increasingly hyperbolic and vitriolic smearing of Mr Packham, with further unsubstantiated allegations of dishonesty regarding peat-burning and the trust’s insurance gratuitously thrown in.”

Packham received a letter telling him: “You will never be safe, you will never be able to go out, we will always be there”, and he posted it online as an example of the way he had been targeted.

The defendants in the libel case then accused the TV star of writing it himself, and obtained an expert report suggesting the handwriting on the letter matched a sample from one of Packham’s Companies House filings.

They refused to withdraw the allegation when it later emerged that Packham had not penned the Companies House filing, but rather it was his accountant’s handwriting.

In his defence, Mr Read says he is not the author or editor of the defamatory articles, and acted only as “proofreader”.