Defendant odious, but still wins suit

At the same time the libel trial of the century involving John Furlong was taking form last week, a defamation verdict was delivered on another case.

The decision on whether British environmental activist Don Staniford libelled a fish-farm company doesn't set a direct precedent for the case involving Furlong and the Georgia Straight. But it's still an intriguing read on a topic that will occupy the newspaper, the Olympic hero and the rest of B.C. for some time to come.

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The verdict describes an antagonistic, self-appointed crusader who went to the rudest lengths possible to heap malicious scorn and suspicion on the company.

And he got away with it, on the grounds that he "had an honest belief in the statements he made, and injuring Mainstream [the company] because of spite or animosity was not his dominant purpose in publishing the words in issue."

Given what emerged during the trial, it goes down as a surprising win.

The activist and environmental campaigner has spent years attacking the fish-farm industry. When B.C. salmon farmers started advertising the benefits of their industry, Staniford countered with a sharp campaign of his own. "Salmon Farming Kills," was the header on a release that compared fish farms to Big Tobacco. The theme was that fish farming is toxic, it's poison and it "seriously damages health."

It included mock cigarette packages with fish farming transposed onto them, featuring the same health warnings about smoking applied to fish farming. Mainstream claimed defamation, arguing that Staniford was proclaiming that their business and products kill people, that it was knowingly selling a carcinogenic product and that "the salmon farming industry is as odious and dishonest as the tobacco industry."

Staniford denied that his messages were statements of fact, saying they were comment or opinion on matters of public interest.

He has been opposing fish farms for almost 20 years. He arrived on the B.C. scene in 2004 as a paid employee of Friends of Clayoquot Sound, campaigning against the organic certification of fish farms there. He sparked a libel suit there and left Canada a year later for another anti-fish-farm job.

He returned to B.C. in 2010 to continue the fight. The judgment gives a flavour of how Staniford conducts himself.

When Mainstream Canada - a Norwegian-owned outfit - demanded he take his website down, the service provider did so. But Staniford sent back a copy of one of his spoof cigarette packages, "with a picture of a fist with a raised middle finger."

Cross-examined about his belief farmed salmon elevates cancer risks, he admitted he was not aware of any research showing anyone had developed cancer from eating farmed salmon.

He relaunched the "Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture" using an overseas provider, and on Facebook accused the Ahousaht First Nation of accepting "blood money" from a fish-farm company, with which it works.

Blogging during his own trial, he demeaned and mocked the physical appearance of three Mainstream witnesses. After the company objected and it was discussed in court, he repeated the comments in an interview posted to YouTube.

(He called one female witness "a fat-bottomed girl," then said she should be flattered by the reference.)

Justice Elaine Adair ruled that calling someone a killer and asserting a firm was knowingly selling toxic poison products is clearly defamatory. But she found his remarks to be comment, not statements of fact.

She said there are many problems with Staniford's credibility. There are examples where he twists facts to conform to his own view.

"Close-mindedness and deep prejudices make him an unreliable reporter of facts," she wrote.

"I have concluded that he will say almost anything to further his own agenda."

But fundamentally, his "prejudiced, exaggerated and obstinate" value judgments are based on his interpretations, she wrote, and he is entitled to them.

Staniford was deported last spring after outstaying his visitor's visa.

A sampling from Adair's conclusion: "Akin to a zealot ... incapable of conceding he might be wrong ... he believes his own press ... defensive, aggressively argumentative and insulting during cross-examination ... cruelly and publicly mocks people who have different points of view .... He is aiming to ridicule and humiliate people who do not agree with his views."

And yet, he won the case.

Anything can happen during a libel trial.

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