18 November 2022


In this issue of zoom-in brief, Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano’s defamation trial begins in Italy, Rachel Riley is awarded £50,000 in damages following her successful libel action against a political blogger; whilst earlier this month Virginia Giuffre and Alan Dershowitz dropped their lawsuits against each other.

Editorial credit:MikeDotta/shutterstock.com
Editorial credit:MikeDotta/shutterstock.com
Roberto Saviano

Defamation – Italy – Anti-Mafia writer Roberto Saviano goes on trial over Italy PM ‘bastard’ remark

The Italian writer and human rights campaigner Roberto Saviano has gone on trial in Rome for calling his country’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, a “bastard”.

Ms Meloni’s criminal defamation action against Mr Saviano, whose 2006 book about the Neapolitan Camorra, Gomorrah, forced him to live under continuing police protection, stems from comments he made during a December 2020 TV interview, when Ms Meloni’s right-wing Brothers of Italy party were in opposition.

Responding to footage of a Spanish NGO rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean the previous month – one of whom, a six-month-old baby from Guinea, subsequently died – Mr Saviano attacked Ms Meloni and Mr Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing Northern League, telling the interviewer:

“All I can say is: they’re bastards – Meloni, Salvini … How is it possible, over such desperation? They have a policy, legitimately, which opposes that of reception [of migrants] – but surely not in the case of an emergency in mid-sea.”

Ms Meloni had previously argued, on the same TV channel, that international law of the sea mandated rescuing drowning people only in “occasional” circumstances, where ships were engaged in “inoffensive passage, as distinct from passage prejudicial to the peace and security of nations”.

In November 2021, Ms Meloni sought the issuing of a writ in criminal defamation against Mr Saviano under article 595 of the Italian penal code. This offence was abolished more than a decade ago in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where libel actions are brought as civil suits. In Italy, the offence carries a potential jail sentence of up to three years, although were Mr Saviano to be convicted, a fine or suspended sentence would be more likely.

After a short hearing this week, at which Mr Salvini asked to be admitted as a plaintiff, the trial was adjourned until 12 December.

Mr Saviano told reporters outside the court: “I think I have the record for being the most prosecuted journalist, personality and individual by this government”.

Ms Meloni’s lawyer, Ms Luca Libra reportedly said that the lawsuit arose “from the hatred used”, and that her legal team were evaluating whether to withdraw it.

Defamation – UK – Countdown presenter Rachel Riley awarded £50K libel damages

TV presenter Rachel Riley has been awarded £50,000 in damages after succeeding in her libel action against political blogger Michael Sivier.

Ms Riley, the co-presenter of the British game show Countdown, had sued Mr Sivier over a January 2019 online article published against the backdrop of a debate about antisemitism and the British Labour Party. The article alleged that Ms Riley had conducted a campaign of online abuse and harassment against a 16-year-old girl, and accused her of hypocrisy and of acting recklessly and obscenely.

Mr Sivier initially relied on three defences to Ms Riley’s libel claim: truth, honest opinion and publication on matter of public interest. In January 2021, the High Court struck out all these defences following an interim hearing. However, the Court of Appeal subsequently allowed Mr Sivier to continue to advance his public interest defence.

More than 11,000 people donated to an online crowdfunding effort set up by Mr Sivier to fight Ms Riley’s claim, raising over £233,000.

The trial of Ms Riley’s claim took place in July. This week, Mrs Justice Steyn DBE handed down judgment in Ms Riley’s favour. The judge rejected Mr Sivier’s public interest defence, finding that although the article was on a matter of public interest, his belief that publishing it was in the public interest was not a reasonable one.

Mrs Justice Steyn DBE found that about 50,000 people had read the article, and that it had caused serious harm to Ms Riley’s reputation. Although the point did not strictly arise, the judge said she had “no hesitation” in concluding that “the statement complained of was not only untrue, it was not even arguably true”.

The £50,000 damages award made by the judge reflected the gravity of the allegation against Ms Riley, the substantial readership of the article, and the absence of any retraction, amendment or apology by Mr Sivier, and his continuing “to maintain the truth of his untrue allegations”.

Defamation – US – Virginia Giuffre and Alan Dershowitz drop lawsuits against each other

Virginia Giuffre, the most prominent of dozens of women who have made sexual misconduct allegations against late financier Jeffrey Epstein, dropped her defamation lawsuit against former Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz earlier this month.

According to court documents filed in Manhattan earlier this month by the parties’ lawyers, the 84-year-old Mr Dershowitz has also dropped his own countersuit against Ms Giuffre, 38, with neither side making any financial payment to the other.

The litigation arose after Ms Giuffre, in 2014, began accusing Mr Dershowitz of sexually assaulting her while she was with Epstein more than a decade earlier. Mr Dershowitz strenuously denied the allegations, describing Ms Giuffre as a “total liar”. Ms Giuffre sued Mr Dershowitz in defamation in April 2019. Following an unsuccessful attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed, Mr Dershowitz countersued Ms Giuffre in November of that year.

The case was due to go to trial in 2023. As a result of this month’s proceedings, a lawsuit involving claims and counterclaims between Mr Dershowitz and David Boies, Ms Giuffre’s lawyer, was also dropped.

In a statement provided by her lawyer, Ms Giuffre said:

“I have long believed that I was trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein to Alan Dershowitz. However, I was very young at the time, it was a very stressful and traumatic environment, and Mr. Dershowitz has from the beginning consistently denied these allegations.”

Ms Giuffre continued: “I now recognize I may have made a mistake in identifying Mr. Dershowitz. This litigation has been very stressful and burdensome for me and my family, and we believe it is time to bring it to an end and move on with our lives.”

Mr Dershowitz said in a statement that he “was gratified” that the litigation had come to a close.

He said: “I have said from the beginning, I never had sex with Ms. Giuffre. I have nevertheless come to believe that at the time she accused me she believed what she said.”

“Ms. Giuffre is to be commended for her courage in now stating publicly that she may have been mistaken about me.”

“She has suffered much at the hands of Jeffrey Epstein, and I commend her work combatting the evil of sex trafficking’”, he added.


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