Northern Ireland

Malachi O’Doherty speaks of anger as Gerry Kelly libel case aimed at ‘silencing me’ finally ends

Journalist and commentator says Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly lost ‘game of poker with very high stakes’

Malachi O'Doherty. Picture: Paul McErlane.

Malachi O’Doherty has said he feels “angry” at his four-year experience during the libel action brought by Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly, with the journalist saying the extensive ruling by a High Court judge should mean broadcasters could be more “supportive” of commentators in future.

The Belfast Telegraph writer and author said he “certainly did” feel harassed and intimidated by the libel proceedings, which the judge said was a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) action.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra on Monday, Mr O’Doherty said he now hopes “it’s the end of it”, as Mr Kelly can still appeal the ruling.

The journalist described the judge’s comments in the 55-page ruling as “almost like a work of literature”.

“I had no idea Master (Evan) Bell was going to go to so much trouble to write 55 pages in this and put forward an argument which appears to me pretty much impenetrable.”

Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Mr O’Doherty said he was happy the judge recognised the action as a SLAPP case, and spoke of moves in the European Parliament and in Dublin to legislate against the use of libel law to “intimidate journalists or other public figures” and have such cases struck out at an early stage.

“I thought immediately it was a totally unviable case,” he said of receiving the initial solicitor’s letter back in 2019, saying he asked himself “is this serious?”.

Asked if he felt intimidated and harassed, as per the UK government’s description of SLAPP actions, he said: “I certainly did. I felt I was being harassed because the case was being dragged on unnecessarily.”

Speaking of the hefty legal costs now faced by North Belfast MLA Mr Kelly, Mr O’Doherty said: “When you’re playing with defamation law, you’re playing a game of poker with very high stakes. That’s what Gerry Kelly will be understanding very clearly today.”

Had he been found to have committed libel, Mr O’Doherty - who was awarded indemnified costs by the judge - said he was at risk of losing both his house, due to costs, and his “credibility as a journalist”.

“It was solely against me,” he added of the case, despite his comments being made on the BBC and U105 radio.

“It was for the purpose, according to the court, of silencing me.”

Mr O’Doherty added: “I feel angry. I’m a writer of books...I will have an opportunity to write about this.

“I think maybe the BBC and other broadcasters, when they see the commentators they employ exposed in this way and vulnerable, they might be a bit more supportive.”