Black issues writ over Express articles
Lord Black, owner of the Daily Telegraph, has launched a libel action against Express Newspapers claiming he and his firm, Hollinger International, were "grossly libelled" by two recent articles in the Sunday Express's finance section.
The articles, on November 3 and 10, claimed Hollinger's bankers in Toronto, TD Securities, had withdrawn a £224m loan and £32m credit facility after becoming worried about the company's level of debt.
Lord Black claims that "virtually every word in these scurrilous articles is not simply wrong but the reverse of the truth". He is suing for damages and applying for an injunction against the paper.
In a statement yesterday afternoon, Lord Black strongly denied the main allegation that TD Securities pulled out after it discovered a Hollinger subsidiary had privately issued £90m in loan notes at a healthy 15.65%. Instead, he said, the loan notes were a group asset, not a liability, since Hollinger is the recipient. This would have been pointed out to the Express if it had contacted Hollinger before publishing the story, the statement said.
As for TD Securities pulling out, Lord Black claims it was he who ended the arrangement in order to strike a better deal elsewhere. The Sunday Express reported Hollinger was in talks with Wachovia Securities, who were only prepared to offer £110m of credit. Lord Black says he now has "a larger facility, at a better rate, and with fewer restrictive covenants".
A TD Securities spokesman refused to comment and the author of the articles, Anil Bhoyrul - writing under the pseudonym Frank Bailey - said he was not allowed to talk about the case following the writ, although Express Newspapers would contest it.
Lord Black is clearly irritated by the allegations, but the decision to resort to the courts is thought to stem from a continuing dispute between the Telegraph and Express Newspapers over their joint printing company, Westferry. Last April, Lord Black served notice on Express owner Richard Desmond after he refused to pay an £8m printing bill. The Telegraph indicated its intention to buy out the Express's share of the business, but they have been unable to agree a price.
After first asking for £80m, Mr Desmond is thought to have lowered the price to £68m, based on a valuation of the company's assets. But Telegraph Group is unwilling to pay more than £30m.
The year-long row has become increasingly bitter and personal, despite a recent public making-up.
It is not the first time Mr Desmond has clashed with fellow newspaper owners. Recently, the Daily Mail and Express locked horns after the Express delved into the past of Mail owner Lord Rothermere. In retaliation, the Daily Mail ran several unflattering features on Mr Desmond.
Mr Desmond is also in heated talks with Independent owner Tony O'Reilly over a joint venture in Ireland. This may in part explain the lead story on November 10 in the Sunday Express: "O'Reillys at bay as losses rocket". The reporter, again Anil Bhoyrul, revealed that "now only emergency action can staunch the massive financial haemorrhage at Independent newspapers".