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Councillor threatens defamation action in aftermath of confidential briefing on COVID-19 local impact

Two councillors at King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council are embroiled in a dispute that has led to the threat of a defamation action.

The row erupted over a confidential briefing for councillors on the local impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, given by its Conservative leader Brian Long.

Leader of the opposition independent group James Moriarty has said that Cllr Long falsely accused him of leaking confidential information.

Acting for Cllr Moriarty, law firm Hayes + Storr said in a letter to Cllr Long that a July council meeting now posted on YouTube carried defamatory statements.

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Hayes + Storr said: “It is clear from this that you are seeking to defame our client and the group of independent councillors by notifying the public of false allegations.”

It said that as the video cannot be removed, Cllr Long should edit it “so that throughout the video from the beginning through to the end a written commentary is published at the bottom containing an apology and retracting the defamatory comments”.

Cllr Hall was also asked to undertake not to publish “similar inaccurate comments again publicly”, publish an apology and pay compensation and costs.

The council’s law firm Weightmans said in response that since Cllr Long had not named Cllr Moriarty “we do not believe there are sufficient grounds to pursue a defamation action against our client”.

It said the statement had not caused ‘serious harm’ as required for a defamation action.

“If, as you suggest, your client has an excellent reputation within the local community, then it is difficult to conclude that such a general statement, embedded into a lengthy YouTube video, would cause a harm which is so serious that it would damage your client’s reputation in the minds of right-thinking members of society,” Weightmans said.

Cllr Long would also claim qualified privilege and the defence of honest opinion.

A council statement said: “Under the council’s insurance policy, conditional cover is provided where defamation claims are made against officers and/or councillors.

“The council has adopted the same procedure as it would in relation to any member against whom such a claim is made. As these matters relate to an ongoing legal claim, the council has no further comment to make.”

Cllr Long told Local Government Lawyer he had “no comment whatsoever”.

Mark Smulian

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