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Enormous amount of offensive material published about Chris Packham, court told

Chris Packham has had an “enormous amount of puerile, offensive and damaging material” published about him, the High Court has heard at the start of his libel claim.

The TV naturalist, 61, is suing three men over nine articles which claimed he defrauded people into donating to a charity to rescue tigers while knowing the animals were well looked after, described in court as “tiger fraud”.

Dominic Wightman, editor of the online site Country Squire Magazine, is defending the libel claim along with writer Nigel Bean and a third man, Paul Read.

The strongly denied allegations, repeated in several tweets and videos, relate to Mr Packham’s involvement with the Wildheart Trust, which runs a wildlife sanctuary on the Isle of Wight.

At the start of the trial on Tuesday, the High Court in London heard that the environmentalist was accused of “abusing his privileged position as a BBC presenter” to dishonestly appeal for donations for the charity, which he and his partner Charlotte Corney are trustees of.

Jonathan Price, for the presenter, 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.”

The environmentalist – who is expected to give evidence on Wednesday – was accused of misleading the public into donating by claiming tigers had been rescued from a circus while he allegedly knew they had been well-treated and were instead donated.

Mr Price said in written submissions: “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”.

Mr Price argued that the three men intended to run “a full-frontal attack” on Mr Packham’s character during the legal case and to get him fired.

“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,” the barrister said in written submissions.

Nicholas O’Brien, for Mr Wightman and Mr Bean, said the articles in the claim were true and could also be defended as under the public interest.

In written submissions, the barrister said: “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.”

Chris Packham libel trial
Chris Packham with his partner Charlotte Corney at the Royal Courts of Justice (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Mr O’Brien said the pair “contend that 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, for retired computer programmer Mr Read, said he was not responsible for the publications attributed to him as he was a “mere proofreader”.

In written submissions, he continued: “Mr Read’s proofread version was then subjected to further amendment by Mr Wightman and/or Mr Bean before publication.”

Mr Price added 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 added.

The trial before Mr Justice Saini is due to conclude on May 12, with a decision expected at a later date.