Tue | Nov 20, 2018

Cliff hanger?

Published:Tuesday | November 11, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Maybe July 7's "pioneering media move" by Clifton Hughes to join Power 106 as a talk-show host while remaining CEO of competitor Nationwide can now be put into clearer perspective.

On Thursday, October 30, the Supreme Court handed down judgment in the case of Percival James Patterson v Cliff Hughes and Nationwide News Network Limited. In a detailed and reasoned judgment, Paulette Williams J. found Nationwide to have engaged in irresponsible journalism in defaming the claimant, P.J. Patterson, and awarded the claimant the sum of $12 million in damages plus costs.

The case had been ongoing ever since Nationwide, through Clifton himself, carried a most damaging and false report regarding the circumstances surrounding Patterson's arrival in Jamaica in May 2009 allegedly on a private jet with Cuban diplomats and Digicel representatives. According to Hughes, "a major incident" took place at the airport involving law enforcement.

Both Nationwide and Clifton refused to offer any amends. Both were severely embarrassed at trial when the anxiety and utter carelessness with which the claimant's name and reputation were defamed were ruthlessly exposed by learned counsel for Patterson, Keith Knight, QC, and Bert Samuels. At Paragraph 82 of her judgment, the learned trial judge wrote:

"In the cross-examination of [Cliff Hughes], Mr Knight, QC, had him acknowledge that most of what was broadcast in that breaking news item and the subsequent midday news was false; there was no truth to much of the information that they had received. There was, in fact, no major incident at the airport. The first defendant accepted that the breaking news story had several falsehoods and that it was not in the public interest to publish such an item. He could not deny that there was no duty, either legal or moral, to publish a story that contained several falsehoods."

Hughes' irresponsibility

By the time the trial ended (May 9), it was obvious to all onlookers, including this scribe, that Hughes' irresponsibility as a journalist had placed Nationwide in deep trouble; that the case was lost; and that a significant award of damages would soon be made by the judge. As the learned trial judge wrote further in her judgment (Paragraph 86):

"In the broadcasts, [Cliff Hughes] reported that the information had been received from a highly well-placed official source and an impeccable source from the state apparatus. In his witness statement/evidence-in-chief, he said he had received it via a telephone call from a prominent member within the state apparatus ... . Under cross-examination, he admitted, reluctantly, that his source was a senior officer from the [DPP's] office. The information he received was confirmed ... by Mr Douglas Leys, the then solicitor general. Lord Gifford, QC, said this information was coming from within the heart of the law-enforcement regime and from people who were in a position to know what had happened; it was no rumour or gossip."

But, with all due respect to Lord Gifford, that submission was bollocks, as Hughes's sources weren't present at the airport when whatever took place was going down. The learned judge was pellucid on that point (Paragraph 88):

"The indisputable fact is that the sources on which the defendants relied to break this news were not at the scene of any alleged incident and, therefore, were not giving first-hand information about matters of which they had direct information."

days numbered

Accordingly, when the trial ended, it was pellucidly clear to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that Nationwide's days were numbered, unless it could find a substantial sum to pay the judgment to be delivered. Sources within Nationwide tell me Hughes' reports to staff were of the 'glass half-full' variety, including that he expected victory because Patterson's receipt of awards and honours subsequent to the false news reports meant he hadn't been damaged. This is an unmeritorious argument recently rejected by Sykes J in the case of Joseph M. Matalon v Observer (in which I was involved) and it was equally certain to be rejected here. It was.

Within two months of the trial's end, but before the judgment was delivered, Clifton Hughes secured a job at Power 106. Are these events connected? Maybe. Maybe not. In all this, let's hope Nationwide is fully insured against this type of legal liability. With costs, interest and legal fees, this is a more-than-$20-million hit which no uninsured radio station can survive. If Nationwide isn't fully covered and the claimant proceeds to enforcement, Nationwide staffers could find themselves holding the short end of a very jagged stick.

Peace and love.

n Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.