The president of the company that owns the Vancouver Sun and Province, Gordon Fisher, is among those who've been found liable in B.C. Supreme Court for defaming Green party MLA Andrew Weaver.
Fisher, who heads Pacific Newspaper Group, was publisher of the National Post when it ran four articles by three different writers that prompted Weaver to file a lawsuit.
Justice Emily Burke ordered the National Post, Fisher, Terence Corcoran, Peter Foster, and Kevin Libin to pay Weaver $50,000 after finding that the defamation was "serious" and that the "factual foundation to the four articles was distorted or false".
"It offended Dr. Weaver’s character and the defendants refused to publish a retraction," Burke wrote in her ruling. "The libel was widely published by at least one high profile journalist and two others."
The articles appeared in late 2009 and early 2010 when Weaver was a professor at the University of Victoria specializing in climate modelling. He's participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Peace Prize.
"In brief, Dr. Weaver says the words used in the various publications state or contain innuendos or inferences that he attempted to divert public attention from a scandal involving 'Climategate' and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the 'IPCC') by fabricating stories about the involvement of the fossil fuel industry with respect to the break-ins at his office; that he is untrustworthy, unscientific and incompetent; and that he distorts and conceals scientific data to promote a public agenda and receive government funding," Burke wrote.
"I'm absolutely thrilled with today's BC Supreme Court judgment in my libel case," Weaver tweeted to his followers.
Articles harmed Weaver's reputation
In the first article, Foster characterized Weaver as "Canada's warmest spinner-in-chief" and a "climate alarmist".
Corcoran alleged in one of his articles that Weaver "often seemed to have crossed that dangerous line between hype and science".
Libin claimed that Weaver's career success, "to some extent", depends "on the momentum of a global-warming panic".
This wasn't the first time that Weaver has felt mistreated by the National Post. According to the ruling, he emailed a request in 2002 for a formal apology and retraction after he was characterized as the "unofficial spokesman" for then-environment minister David Anderson.
The paper acknowledged the error at the time.
In 2005, the paper published a correction after Corcoran had misquoted Weaver.
Again in 2006, Weaver sought a correction in response to a Corcoran article. The National Post published Weaver's letter.
In 2008, the National Post published another correction in connection with a false claim by Foster that Weaver had "released a diatribe" against research of Ross McKitrick and Stephen McIntyre, who've been critical of the scientific consensus around climate change.
"Also, Mr. Foster did not mean to imply that Mr. Weaver was in any way an author of the editorial in Nature magazine which was the subject of the column," the paper stated.
Legal action followed break-ins at UVic
The lawsuit arose after Weaver spoke publicly about his third-floor office being broken into on November 24, 2008. Three days later, his assistant's office was also broken into.
"In this incident, a computer with the name Journal of Climate, on his assistant’s desk, was taken," Burke wrote in her ruling.
The Georgia Straight's Travis Lupick wrote an article on November 25, 2009 quoting Weaver in response to a controversy concerning files stolen from the University of East Anglia's climate-research unit.
“There are people who don’t like that message and they are trying to undercut that message by selectively targeting individuals,” Weaver said.
Lupick mentioned that Weaver had knowledge of attempts to break into computers at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, which occupied the same building as the climate scientist.
At no point did Lupick suggest that Weaver had made claims of the fossil-fuel industry being behind these breaches. But that was subsequently stated by the National Post writers without substantiation.
Corcoran revealed to the court that he only learned of the break-ins at UVic from a CBC report on December 2, 2009. The following day, he received a copy of Lupick's article, according to the decision, and forwarded a link to Foster.
That's the same day Foster began writing the first of four articles that were subject to the defamation claim. It came after another National Post journalist, Megan O'Toole, had filed a piece on December 3, 2009, about security breaches at UVic.
Corcoran sent an email in response to Foster's story, "Weaver's Web", asking if Weaver's office was the only one broken into on campus.
"Were they not related to climate change?" Corcoran asked. "Is it unreasonable to suggest that Weaver’s charge against the fossil fuel industry is totally without merit?"
Corcoran wrote a follow-up, called "Weaver's Web II", which purported that Weaver had linked the break-ins at UVic to the "evil fossil fuel industries".
Weaver testified that he was "devastated" by these two articles, saying things were attributed to him that he had never said.
Weaver says he was later misquoted
The next month, he claimed he was misquoted by another journalist, Richard Foot, who reported that he had called for the resignation of the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Foot told Weaver that he had been assigned to write the article by a Canwest editor. At the time, Canwest owned the National Post.
Weaver let Foot know that he felt he had been misquoted.
Corcoran later wrote that Weaver was calling for the chair's replacement, adding that this made the "latest IPCC fiasco look even more damaging".
"Once Dr. Weaver saw the two articles, he was of the view he had been set up by Mr. Corcoran," Burke wrote. "He felt Mr. Corcoran had gotten Mr. Foot to do a 'hatchet job' on him—'Here we go again someone who doesn’t know who I am; an example of Mr. Corcoran personally trying to discredit me'."
The fourth article by Libin, headlined "So Much for Pure Science", left Weaver convinced that everyone at the National Post was after him.
The UVic professor decided to create a "Wall of Hate" outside his UVic office featuring copies of attacks launched against him.
He retained lawyer Roger McConchie to pursue a defamation action; the defendants maintained that even if the statements were false, they did not impugn his character.
"While the initial story that Dr. Weaver linked the fossil fuel industry with break-ins to his office in isolation may not by itself impact on his character, the inference in bothWeaver’s Web and Weaver’s Web II is Dr. Weaver fabricated the linkage of the fossil fuel industry to break-ins to further his own interests when those break-ins had occurred throughout the university," Burke wrote in her ruling. "Those interests were identified as deflecting criticism from the Climategate controversy as it impacted his own scientific credibility. The allegation he did so impacts on his ethical reputation. It creates the impression he concocted a false story in order to distract from the Climategate scandal in the press."
She also noted that a reference to "cooking the books" in the third article referred in this context to Weaver.
"In addition, I conclude there is innuendo that Dr. Weaver is incompetently linking current weather and temperature events with global warming 'painting sensational pictures'," the judge noted. "This is also troubling as Dr. Weaver has, over the years, as set out earlier in this case, sought corrections and retractions from the National Post and Mr. Corcoran, in particular, when he has previously been misquoted. The National Post and Mr. Corcoran knew about Dr. Weaver’s cautious views on this point and ignored them in the pertinent articles."
Scathing conclusions from the judge
As for the first article by Foster, Burke concluded that the words were "intended by the defendants to bear the inferential meanings" that Weaver fabricated stories about break-ins and hack attacks, "engaged in willful manipulation and distortion of scientific data for the purpose of deceiving the public in order to promote a political agenda", "is untrustworthy, unscientific, and incompetent", and "engaged in a pattern of deceptive conduct in the news media".
The second article by Corcoran led, according to Burke, "to the clear inference" that Weaver "was fabricating this story for his own interests and is therefore deceitful and incompetent".
The third piece by Corcoran was taken to mean that Weaver had "betrayed his obligation as a scientist" and had "condoned the inclusion of fraudulent information in the 2007 IPCC report", among other things, according to Burke.
The final article by Libin "intended the inferential meanings" that Weaver is "deceitful, avaricious, and untrustworthy", "deceitfully accused the fossil fuel industry of being involved with the hacked emails from the CRU", and "deceitfully promoted the false theory that global warming is occurring and is caused by human activity in order to cause panic and generate funding to satisfy a selfish personal interest in receiving financial rewards from the public purse".
National Post pieces weren't fair comment
The defendants failed to convince the judge that the four articles met the legal test for fair comment, which was outlined in a 2008 Supreme Court of Canada ruling involving former broadcaster Rafe Mair.
"To access the fair comment defence, the defendants are required to prove the facts they are relying on as true," Burke wrote. "I do not find the fact that 'Dr. Weaver claimed the fossil fuel industry might be responsible for break-ins to his office in UVic' to be established in this case."
She also found that Weaver did not call for the resignation of the IPCC chair.
"Another area of factual dispute is whether Dr. Weaver has repeatedly linked weather and temperature events in articles and the media as stated by the defendants," Burke added. "Dr. Weaver took issue with the statement made in the publications that he has made numerous television appearances linking current weather and temperature events with global warming. The evidence established Dr. Weaver’s writings and position on this was consistent and clear."
Comments were defamatory, but no liability established
Weaver also objected to numerous posts by readers under the articles, which the judge found to be defamatory as well. However, she did not hold the newspaper liable for their publication.
"Once the defendants became aware of the comments in the reader postings and received a complaint, they were then taken down," Burke wrote. "The volume of postings is such it would not be realistic to expect the defendant to pre-vet every posting."
She noted that until awareness occurs, the "National Post can be considered to be in a passive instrumental role in the dissemination of the reader postings".
"Once the offensive comments were brought to the attention of the defendants, however, if immediate action is not taken to deal with these comments, the defendants would be considered publishers as at that date," Burke declared. "In this case, while [assistant managing editor] Mr. [John] Racovali could not recall who he spoke to about having the comments removed, he testified within one or two days of receiving the complaints of the reader posts, he took steps to remove the offending reader posts. While Dr. Weaver says this evidence is not credible as Mr. Racovali did not make a note of this, I accept his evidence on this point."