Burleigh to Telegraph: Retract retraction and apologize for apology over Melania story -- or else

Out of the frying pan and into the fire? The retraction, apology, and settlement of “substantial damages” last week by the Daily Telegraph for its reporting on Melania Trump was designed to prevent even bigger damages by going to court. According to the NY Post’s Page Six, the Telegraph might still have some ‘splaining to do to a judge. Author and Newsweek reporter Nina Burleigh and her lawyers did a little libel throat-clearing this week, too:

Nina Burleigh, author of “Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women,” is threatening to sue the Telegraph in London for retracting a story based on her book and issuing a groveling apology.

A claim letter to the Telegraph from Burleigh’s lawyers says, “Your apology traduces Ms. Burleigh’s reputation as a competent journalist . . . In fact, it is [the Telegraph’s] apology that is false.”

Burleigh certainly sounds serious about getting her own piece of the Telegraph’s hide with the apology. She mocked the Telegraph’s decision to settle on Twitter this weekend, and over the last few hours has more than suggested that she’s preparing for a court battle over the damage to her reputation:

https://twitter.com/ninaburleigh/status/1090785766484119557

The link goes to the claim letter published on Burleigh’s website, which goes into great detail into how the retraction allegedly defamed Burleigh. Her lawyers claim that the Telegraph Media Group (TMG) had access to Burleigh’s sources, which confirm their original reporting, and that the Telegraph could have reconfirmed them on their own:

Not only were all the statements repudiated by TMG true, they were properly sourced, according to normal journalistic practice. TMG knew this. Ms Burleigh provided TMG with the names or descriptions of the sources she relied upon before the Apology was issued. (See Email from N Burleigh to R Murray, L Powell and E Rivlin, 23 January 2019.) Ms Burleigh had also sought comment from Mrs Trump a number of times before publication of her Book, but been rebuffed by her Press Secretary and Communications Director, Stephanie Grisham. TMG also knew this before publishing the Apology. Had TMG had any doubt about the sourcing or honesty of the Article, it had every opportunity to check before publication. The scrupulous line edit undertaken by Laura Powell, editor of the Magazine section in which the Article appeared, contains no requests for further checks or scepticism about the validity of Ms Burleigh’s journalism. Indeed, Ms Powell praised the work in one email after the final round of edits: “Thanks again for a fascinating piece”. Furthermore, editor Sasha Slater chose to make it the cover story.

Furthermore, the Telegraph apparently cited Burleigh when it should have cited Michael Wolff on one of the retracted claims, further damaging Burleigh’s standing:

“The claim that Mrs Trump cried on election night is also false.” Ms Burleigh’s Article does not make this claim, it simply reiterates what is by now common knowledge that Michael Wolff reported this in his widely publicised and quoted book, Fire and Fury.1 The attribution to Ms Burleigh is false.

That certainly might be a problem in court, if it comes to that. Burleigh’s attorneys offered terms to avoid a court date that might sound somewhat familiar to TMG. They want (a) an apology, (b) payment for the article, which apparently has been withheld, (c) unspecified compensation for damage to Burleigh’s reputation, and (d) payment of all legal costs. If they decide to settle, it might be a first in the newspaper business — a publisher apologizing to and paying compensation for both parties to a libel action.

If so, it would mainly be due to the UK’s broad definitions of libel. Had Burleigh’s work been excerpted in the US, it never would have gotten to court at all. There is a much higher threshold for libel and slander in the US, thanks to the First Amendment and the Sullivan decision, especially when it comes to public figures like the Trumps. Publishers in the UK face a lot more risk, which may be why they’re quick to settle and retract — even when it might do damage to their reporters or their partners.

They’d better get used to it, the Washington Post reports, at least when it comes to Melania Trump. She’s not inclined to suffer slights as quietly as previous First Ladies, and neither are her attorneys:

Trump has won settlements against three outlets for “false statements” made during her husband’s time in the White House. Her litigious strategy tracks with her willingness to push back on her critics by issuing harsh public statements.

This weekend, the British paper the Telegraph apologized and agreed to pay “substantial damages” after retracting a story that claimed, among other unflattering things, the former model’s career had been struggling until she met Donald Trump.

That follows the first lady’s $2.9 million settlement with the Daily Mail over its false report in 2016 that she had worked as an escort and an unspecified settlement in 2017 with a Maryland blogger who reported similar unfounded rumors and also was forced to retract a post that Trump may have suffered a nervous breakdown after her speech at the Republican National Convention.

And the list could grow. “First lady Melania Trump will continue to enforce her rights against reckless writers, reporters, editors and publishers who make false statements about her,” said her attorney, Charles Harder, who has represented several high-profile clients, including wrestler Hulk Hogan, who won a $140 million invasion-of-privacy verdict against the gossip website Gawker.

In other words, when they go low, Melania Trump calls her lawyers.

That’s her prerogative too, although she’ll have a tougher time using that strategy against US-based publishers. The Sullivan decision looks wise in this context; it allows for greater freedom of reporting while still leaving open some accountability for provable malice. After this past week, it probably looks pretty good to the Telegraph Media Group as well, or it will when their heads stop spinning.