IVF libel case:
The BBC yesterday abandoned its claim that a Panoroma investigation into the country’s top fertility doctor constituted “responsible journalism”.
It now faces having to pay out at least £500,000 of taxpayers’ money to Mohamed Taranissi, who is suing the corporation after the flagship current affairs programme accused him of pressuring patients into paying for unnecessary treatment.
BBC lawyers in the High Court ditched a 15-month-old claim that the corporation was protected from the doctor’s libel action by qualified privilege, which shields journalists so long as they carry out “responsible journalism”.
The BBC is still defending the claim on the ground that the Panorama allegations were substantially true.
Richard Rampton, QC, Mr Taranissi’s counsel, said that the corporation had “thrown in the towel” after months of hard work and hundreds of thousands of pounds incurred by both sides. “It follows as a matter of justice, as night follows day, that they should pay,” he said.
Giving judgment, Mr Justice Eady agreed, saying that the BBC must bear the financial burden of that part of the case — estimated by Mr Taranissi’s lawyers to have cost at least half a million pounds.
Adrienne Page, QC, representing the BBC, said that the corporation continued to “stand behind its journalists and its programme and expects both to be vindicated at trial”. Mr Rampton accused the BBC of “grossly exaggerating” the number of medical sources that supported the programme’s allegations that Mr Taranissi offered “unnecessary and unproven” treatment and manipulated the success rates of his two London clinics.
“It’s Alice in Wonderland stuff,” he said. “One of the so-called medical experts was actually an administrative assistant.” He also criticised Panorama for “misleading” viewers, which the BBC denied.
The development came as Mr Taranissi was named as the UK’s most successful fertility doctor in annual figures released yesterday by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. His Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre had comfortably the highest success rate of any British clinic in 2006, with 61 per cent of patients aged under 35 having a baby after IVF treatment with their own fresh eggs. The national average for this patient group was 31 per cent.
The doctor’s other centre, the Reproductive Genetics Institute, took second place in the table, with a 50 per cent success rate for women under 35.
The results are embarrassing for the authority, which has been engaged in a long disciplinary action against the doctor over claims that he treated patients at the Reproductive Genetics Institute without the correct licence. Last year the watchdog declared Mr Taranissi unfit to be the “person responsible” for his main clinic, but it annulled the ruling last month after a legal challenge. The High Court also found that the authority used unlawful warrants to search the two clinics last January.
The General Medical Council is currently hearing complaints against Mr Taranissi from two patients, which he contests.
IVF success rates
1 Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre, London, 61% 2 Reproductive Genetics Institute, London, 50%3= Lister Fertility Clinic, London, 44%3= UCH, London, 44%5 Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, 42%6 Nurture, Nottingham, 41%7= Cromwell IVF and Fertility Centre, London, 39%7= Shropshire and Mid-Wales Fertility Centre, 39%9= Bath Fertility Centre, 38%9= CRM London, 38%9= Guy’s Hospital, London 38%
Source: Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (for women under 35 using own fresh embryos)