Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman has been cleared of defaming a company which seeks to protect the endangered Scottish wildcat.
Wildcat Haven Enterprises had brought the action against Wightman in a bid to win £750,000 in damages.
The firm claimed it suffered loss and damage after the Lothian MSP made claims in two blog posts and on social media that it branded defamatory.
Wildcat Haven director Paul O’Donoghue told the Court of Session in Edinburgh last year that Wightman had damaged his company’s reputation by claiming it was a “tax haven”.
Wightman lawyer’s contended the MSP’s comments were built around “legitimate criticisms” of the business, which sells “souvenir plots” of land to members of the public.
On Wednesday, a judge ruled that Wildcat Haven’s claim had failed and dismissed the action against the Wightman.
Lord Clark said: “A number of the defamatory imputations founded upon by the pursuer (Wildcat) are not the meanings which the ordinary reasonable reader would have taken from the relevant material and so those claims cannot succeed.”
He added: “It is apparent that there are a number of meanings which the pursuer relies upon which are not true meanings and indeed are overstatements by the pursuer of what was actually stated.
“These include the pursuer’s allegations that the defender referred to it as the same entity as HTL (Highland Titles Limited) and that the pursuer itself was ‘a tax dodging scam designed to con the public out of money and then funnelling money donated to wildcats to the Channel Islands, to line the pockets of corporate fat cats and the aristocratic gentry’.”
In his first blog published in September 2015 under the headline ‘Wildcat Haven, Bumblebee Haven or Tax Haven?’, Wightman wrote that the conservation company was supported by the Alderney-based HTL and Volkswagen.
It stated that Wildcat Haven had adopted Highland Title’s methods of selling small souvenir land plots and claiming that the buyer became the owner.
Mr O’Donoghue told the court: “The claim that Wildcat is a tax haven is deeply upsetting…
“The allegations that my wife and I take any money from Wildcat Enterprises for our personal gains sickens me to the stomach.”
Wildcat maintained that the sale of land plots was a marketing device allowing supporters to donate funds in “a novel, imaginative and light-hearted way”.
Wightman, the author of Who owns Scotland, contended that the blogs represented his honest comment on matters of public interest.
Lord Clark said Wightman had made four untrue statements in the material published.
But the judge said: “The fact that the defender has made certain statements which are untrue does not itself mean that the defamatory allegations complained of the pursuer were made.
“For the defence of fair comment to be available, it is not necessary that every fact founded upon is true.
“In applying the standard of responsible journalism in a practical and flexible manner, I… conclude that the blogs do not meet that test.”
However, he continued: “There was an important factual inaccuracy contained in the blogs.
“While it is correct that the defender did research and sought verification on a number of the matters mentioned in the blogs, he made a material omission in failing to take into account that the pursuer had altered the identity of its asset-lock from HTCTS (the charitable trust that owned HTL) to another entity.”
Lord Clark stressed the evidence available showed Wildcat Haven to be a “small company engaged in a genuine scheme aimed at the conservation of wildcats, run by well-intentioned and enthusiastic individuals”.
The judge added: “This must have been apparent to the defender at least as being a serious possibility.
“The scheme was still seeking to get off the ground around the time of blog one, as the defender was fully aware.
“There was no urgency to publish either of the blogs; unlike a newspaper seeking a scoop, there was no specific newsworthy matter that had just occurred and required immediate publication.
“The defender has, at his leisure, put together the contents of the blogs.
“In those circumstances, responsible journalism carried with it the need to seek comment on behalf of the pursuer in advance of publication.”
Wildcat had claimed that an opportunity to buy an area of Highland forest had fallen through following the publication of the material.
The Green MSP raised more than £115,000 in an online crowdfunder to help fund his legal bills for last autumn’s eight-day trial.
Wightman said he was “delighted” at Lord Clark’s judgment and thanked his family, friends and legal team for their support.
He added: “I want to pay particular thanks to the thousands of people who generously contributed to my crowdfunder, without whom I would simply have been unable to defend myself. I have been hugely encouraged by their ongoing support.
“The National Union of Journalists and Scottish PEN have also been very supportive as part of their wider campaign for defamation reform.
“I have maintained throughout that I did not defame the pursuer and that this action should never have been brought against me.
“It is vital that parliament modernises the law of defamation to ensure that the law provides the right balance between freedom of expression and the rights of people not to have their reputations tarnished.
“It is also important that the law is clear, so that writers and journalists can write confidently and provide the freedom of expression that is so important in any democracy.”