Chris Packham’s libel trial kicked off at the High Court on Tuesday.
The TV star and environmentalist, 61, is suing three men over allegations he misled the public into donating to a wildlife charity dedicated to rescuing tigers from circuses.
Mr Packham strongly denies the allegations, which were made in online articles that claimed he knew the tigers were actually well looked after.
At the start of Mr Packham’s libel claim, the High Court heard that the presenter has had an ‘enormous amount of puerile, offensive and damaging material’ published about him.
The libel claim’s defendants are Country Squire Magazine editor Dominic Wightman, writer Nigel Bean and another man named Paul Read.
One Country Squire article accused Mr Packham of ‘not being truthful with the British public,’ adding: ‘Money has been raised on the back of their truth-bending and they now need to come clean and tell the truth.’
According to The Independent, Mr Packham’s barrister Jonathan Price said of the articles: ‘Were this to be true investigative journalism that gathers information in the public interest… it would not contain the degree of venom, bitterness and malice.’
Meanwhile, Mr Wightman argues the articles were the result of a ‘long-term journalistic investigation’ and insisted he was ‘standing on a mountain of facts’ about the allegations.
As the trial began on Tuesday, the High Court in London heard that Mr Packham was accused of ‘abusing his privileged position as a BBC presenter’ to dishonestly ask for donations for the wildlife charity, which he and his partner Charlotte Corney are trustees of.
Mr Packham’s barrister Mr Price said: ‘It is now a facility that rescues animals in need of a forever home, as they put it, because for whatever reason they are unwanted by their former owners.
‘A central allegation in this case that it is fraudulent to attach the word rescue to this process.’
Packham is expected to give evidence in court on Wednesday May 3.
In written submissions, Mr Price said: ‘Mr Packham is well-known for his decades of vociferous campaigning for, and strongly held beliefs on, animal welfare and nature conservation issues.
‘An argument that he does not genuinely hold those beliefs but has instead sought to defraud the public for money is, at best, an ambitious one.’
The court was told that Mr Packham had been described by the defendants as a fraud, a ‘notorious liar’, of having an ‘obvious nastiness’, and of playing the ‘Asperger’s victim card’.
The TV host’s barrister argued that the three defendants intended to launch ‘a full-frontal attack’ on Mr Packham’s character during the trial in an effort to make the environmentalist lose his job.
‘As the litigation has progressed, the defendants have published an enormous amount of puerile, offensive and damaging material about the claimant, often under the guise of fundraising for their defence,’ he stated in written submissions.
Nicholas O’Brien, representing Mr Wightman and Mr Bean, said that the articles in the claim were true and could also be defended using the argument of public interest.
‘It is clear that the tigers had not been rescued from a circus, were not then in need of rescue, and were not rescued by Mr Packham,’ the barrister said in written submissions, stating that Mr Wightman and Mr Bean ‘contend Mr Packham knew the statements were false, and they were therefore made dishonestly’.
‘They were also fraudulent in that they were made with a view to a gain and constituted an abuse of his privileged position as a BBC presenter,’ he added.
David Price KC, representing Mr Read, said that the retired computer programmer was a ‘mere proofreader’ and therefore not responsible for the publications attributed to him.
‘Mr Read’s proofread version was then subjected to further amendment by Mr Wightman and/or Mr Bean before publication,’ he said in written submissions, adding that Mr Wightman had admitted responsibility.
‘The fact that Mr Read was given courtesy byline credits… cannot override the hard evidence as to his limited involvement,’ he stressed.
In written arguments, Mr Wightman and Mr Bean said: ‘The statements complained of are serious and would convey a defamatory tendency were they not factual and bloody well true.’
A preliminary ruling in March found the allegations to be defamatory and it was said the men ‘didn’t shy away from allegations Packham misused his role as a BBC presenter to defraud the public into making charitable donations on the false pretext that tigers had been mistreated by a circus and rescued by a zoo’.
The trial is due to end on May 12, with a decision expected to be announced at a later date.
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