The Sunday Times and its intrepid reporter Michael Gillard recently won an epic libel victory against major East End criminal David Hunt. Its significance was underlined in the paper's July 7 leader column:
LIFTING THE LID ON THE PROFESSION OF VIOLENCE
The death last month of that fine actor James Gandolfini brought into play yet again the myth that organised crime has a romantic face - that it is not an obscenely profitable blight on society but consists of ageing bruisers who are a danger only to themselves and each other. Mr Gandolfini's Tony Soprano bears some resemblance to David Hunt, who this newspaper unmasked as a powerful and feared criminal. He sued us for libel, but our verdict on his character was upheld last week. Like Mr Soprano, Mr Hunt lives in luxury and cares about his family. Unlike Mr Soprano, he has no need for drink, drugs or psychiatry to alleviate the stress of criminality. As a former associate put it: "He just created so much fear because he would do all his villainy sober."
Nor has he confined his violence to other criminals. Peter Wilson, a courageous reporter, told the libel trial that when he had the temerity to ask Mr Hunt about his alleged involvement in a double murder, "the speed and aggression of Mr Hunt was something that was quite bewildering ... He grabbed me by the lapels. He whacked me with his head straight into my orbit [eye socket], shook me round like a rag doll, swore at me and dropped me." When the libel trial began, the bodyguards protecting our witnesses withdrew after one day. Another renowned security firm refused to step into the breach. Such is the fear that Mr Hunt's name engenders.
Yet when seven years ago another courageous man, Detective Chief Inspector David McKelvey, set out to find evidence that would bring Mr Hunt to justice, he was warned off by his superiors. The target was "too dangerous", the detective was told, pursuing him would tie up resources, organised crime was not a policing priority in Newham, the east London borough that was Mr Hunt's centre of operations, street crime was more important. When the chief inspector persisted - having argued that "Hunt has evaded justice over many years by corrupting police and the judicial system" - his career in the force was destroyed.
Mr Hunt, in the judgment of Mr Justice Simon who tried his libel complaint, has been involved in fraud, prostitution, money laundering and "extreme violence". Previously confidential documents produced at the trial revealed that the police and other crime fighting agencies have been well aware of his activities for many years. Yet it has taken extremely brave witnesses, including a persistent investigative reporter, Michael Gillard, to bring these facts before the public.
It has been a high stakes legal battle. This newspaper has needed deep pockets to fill the vacuum left by those who should have taken on Mr Hunt long ago. We have not shied from the task, just as in the past we took on the distributors of thalidomide and the quartermaster general of the Provisional IRA. It is now time for others to take action.