A senior member of the shadow cabinet is suing The Sun over claims a heavy metal band he performed with used Nazi imagery.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon argues that an April 2017 article which said he had joined a Leeds band that “delights in Nazi symbols” was “highly defamatory, false and unfair”.
The Labour MP claims an image tweeted by the band Dream Troll, which appears to use the “S” from the logo of the notorious Nazi paramilitary organisation the SS, was a “spoof” of Black Sabbath’s 1975 album “We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll”.
But The Sun’s publisher, News Group Newspapers, and its political editor Tom Newton Dunn argue that the image was “strongly reminiscent of Nazi iconography” and that Mr Burgon “demonstrated terrible misjudgment and exposed himself to ridicule”.
At the start of a three-day libel trial at the High Court in London on Wednesday, Mr Burgon’s lawyers said the article involved a “deliberate misrepresentation”.
His barrister Adam Speker told Mr Justice Dingemans: “The defendants accept that Mr Burgon is not a Nazi, that there are no grounds and never have been any grounds to believe that he is (and) that Mr Burgon is not an anti-semite.”
He added: “What this case is about, therefore, is how a harmless Twitter image designed by the band for its fans to honour Black Sabbath has been converted by…a process of deliberate misrepresentation of the source material, the suppression of the true explanation for its creation and the use of exaggerated and dishonest language.”
Mr Speker said the article by Mr Newton Dunn – titled “Reich and Roll: Labour’s justice boss ridiculed after he joins a heavy metal band that delights in Nazi symbols” – was prompted when a Labour councillor “with an axe to grind” emailed him.
He added that The Sun had “manufactured a knowingly false and misleading story” by “doctoring the image published by the band” by removing the hashtag “#blacksabbath” which accompanied the tweet.
He also accused The Sun of creating a “fictional political controversy” by claiming that “Tories rounded on the 36-year-old former trade union lawyer”, noting that only one – Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke – commented on the story.
Mr Speker said the article was “as far removed from responsible journalism as one could possibly imagine”, adding: “Quite simply, they were just out to get him.”
But Adam Wolanski, for the defendants, pointed out that Mr Burgon “aspires to be Secretary of State for Justice, to occupy the office of Lord Chancellor and to be a senior member of Her Majesty’s Cabinet”.
He said: “For this reason, the question of whether he demonstrates good judgment is a matter, not just of legitimate comment, but a matter of vital public debate.
“Has Mr Burgon demonstrated good judgment or not in relation to an image displayed to the public by a band with whom he associates? An image which, we say, is strongly reminiscent of Nazi iconography.”
He said the image featured two “S”s which were “strikingly similar to the symbol of the SS”.
He added that Mr Burgon’s on-the-record comment to The Sun, which said that the members of Dream Troll did not have “a racist or Nazi bone in their bodies”, “did not seek to take the very simple step of distancing himself from the Dream Troll SS image”.
Mr Wolanski submitted that “Mr Burgon’s reaction to the proposed story reinforced the doubts Mr Newton Dunn already had” about his judgment.
He said: “Here was a shadow cabinet minister who was prepared to associate with and defend a group of people who used, indeed appeared to delight in using, an image with obvious Nazi connotations.”
Mr Wolanski added that the article was published at the time of “speculation that Labour had a tin ear for anti-semitism within its midst”, which he said had “already generated enormous controversy”.
Mr Wolanski said the article “concerned one of the most urgent and troubling political topics of our day”.
He concluded: “The fact that Black Sabbath used the double-S insignia in the 1970s (and that the image was) a parody or homage to that Black Sabbath album is absolutely no answer to the charge of misjudgment on the part of Mr Burgon”.
Mr Wolanski added: “Neither Black Sabbath or Dream Troll aspire to run the country. Mr Burgon does.”
In his witness statement, Mr Burgon said he was “shocked” when he saw Mr Newton Dunn had referred to “Nazi iconography” when he approached the Labour Party press office for comment.
He said of the article itself: “I saw it at the time and remain of the view that the intention of Mr Newton Dunn was to smear me and cause maximum damage.”
Mr Burgon added that he received an email a week after the article was published which said: “We are going to hang you you f**king weird piece of s**t.”
In cross examination, Mr Wolanski asked whether Mr Burgon thought that “people might consider that this image is strongly reminiscent of Nazism and suggestive of Nazi iconography”.
Mr Burgon replied: “I think people may think that if a story is written which helps them to arrive at that conclusion.”
Mr Wolanski then asked Mr Burgon if he thought that “people who survived the Holocaust” would think the image had “Nazi associations”.
Mr Burgon said: “I believe if they read the online article by The Sun newspaper it could lead them to that very disturbing conclusion.”
Mr Burgon will complete his evidence on Thursday morning, and is expected to be followed by Mr Newton Dunn’s evidence and cross-examination.
Mr Justice Dingemans is expected to reserve his judgment in the case.
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