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Conservative peer wins libel damages from MailOnline over 'extremist' allegations

Publisher apologised to Lord Mohamed Sheikh for an article accusing him of 'rubbing shoulders with Islamists and Holocaust deniers'
Lord Sheikh outside High Court
Lord Sheikh (right) and his solicitor outside the High Court in London on 30 July, after Associated Newspapers delivered their apology over the publication of a defamatory article (Supplied)

One of the UK's leading newspaper companies has apologised to a senior Conservative Party peer on Thursday after accusing him of associating with "Islamists, hate preachers and Holocaust deniers" in an article.

Lord Mohamed Sheikh launched legal action in 2018 against the Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL) - owners of the Daily Mail newspaper and the MailOnline - after the outlet published an article which focused on the politician's attendance of a conference in Tunisia in 2014 alongside Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP who went on to become leader of the party in 2015.

The aftermath of the conference included a wreath-laying ceremony - at which Corbyn was present - for a number of Palestinians killed in an Israeli air strike in 1985. A photo of Corbyn holding a wreath at the event sparked controversy, due to his proximity to the graves of Palestinian leaders believed to be involved in the 1972 Black September killings at the Munich Olympics, in which 11 people died.

On Thursday, Sheikh’s solicitor, Callum Galbraith, informed the High Court that Associated Newspapers had accepted the "very serious allegations" published in the article were untrue and that it had agreed to apologise and to pay a substantial sum of damages to Sheikh, as well as his legal costs.

In a statement following the hearing, Sheikh said:

"Both before and since I entered the House of Lords, I have consistently sought to promote inter-racial and inter-faith understanding, tolerance and respect. I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against antisemitism and I have always spoken out against antisemitism. To find myself accused by a newspaper of the very conduct which I have always opposed was profoundly hurtful.

"I am delighted to have been able finally to clear my name from these shocking and unfounded allegations," stated Sheikh, who also thanked his legal team for their support during "a very difficult and distressing time".

Defamatory article

In August 2018, the MailOnline published an article under the byline of its associate global editor, Jake Wallis Simons, headed “EXCLUSIVE: Top Tory peer’s appearance at Corbyn’s ‘hate conference’ in Tunisia comes after YEARS of rubbing shoulders with Islamists, hate preachers and Holocaust deniers."

The article, which has since been removed from the website, said that Sheikh and Corbyn were "fellow travellers on the extremist circuit, rubbing shoulders with jihadis and anti-Semites who seem to carry views inimical to Western values".

It cited a number of events that Sheikh had attended, including an event in Mayfair in 2009 that hosted as its keynote speaker former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has previously claimed that "Jews rule this world by proxy" and described Jewish people as "hook-nosed". 

The MailOnline article also implied that taking part in events and delegations hosted by Palestine-focused organisations such as the Palestinian Relief and Development Fund - better known as Interpal - and Palestine Return Centre, were indicative of support for "extremism".

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According to the statement released by Sheikh's legal team on Thursday, he had attended the conference in Tunisia in the wake of the conflict between Israel and Gaza in 2014, which had seen more than 2,000 people - mostly Palestinian civilians - killed.

"In his speech Lord Sheikh had advocated, consistent with UK government policy, that to achieve a lasting peace, a two-state solution should provide security for the state of Israel and respect for the rights of the Palestinian people.

"He played no part in the wreath-laying ceremony and was not even aware of it until 2018," said the statement.

Labour tackles antisemitism

Following the publication of the MailOnline article, a number of Conservative politicians had called for Sheikh to the expelled from the party.

Allegations of antisemitism have dogged numerous politicians in British politics in recent years, particularly focused around the opposition Labour Party.

Last month, the party's Shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked after she shared an article on social media in which the British actor Maxine Peake suggested that the US police officer who killed George Floyd had received training from Israeli special forces. 

Long-Bailey was a close ally of Corbyn, who faced accusations of antisemitism throughout his leadership, which ended in April 2020. Corbyn and his supporters have rejected the accusations and drawn attention to attempts by opponents of the left-wing leader to sabotage Labour's attempts to tackle antisemitism.