Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, testifies in Gawker Media lawsuit © Getty

Gawker Media will call on a Florida appeals court to overturn $140m in damages against the company after Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel admitted he had secretly financed the lawsuit against the online news group.

Mr Thiel, an early investor in Facebook, confirmed to the New York Times that he had contributed to the legal expenses of Hulk Hogan, the wrestler who sued Gawker after it published a sex tape in which he appeared.

The tech entrepreneur described his involvement — which was first reported by Forbes and the New York Times — as one of the ”greater philanthropic things that I’ve done”. He added that Mr Hogan’s case was “not the only one” that he had helped fund.

Mr Thiel could not be reached for further comment. But in his interview with the New York Times, published on Wednesday, he said: “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest ... I thought it was worth fighting back.”

Gawker, which pointed to Mr Thiel’s positions on the boards of Facebook and as a “major funder” of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that according to press reports he had been “secretly funding a legal campaign against our journalists”.

“There are very serious questions about whether Hulk Hogan financially benefited and this case is over,” a Gawker statement said.

Mr Thiel has clashed with Gawker before. Valleywag, a technology news and gossip site operated by Gawker until 2015, outed him as gay in 2007 which led to Mr Thiel calling it the “Silicon Valley equivalent of al-Qaeda”.

In March a Florida jury ordered Gawker to pay Mr Hogan — real name Terry Bollea — $140m in total damages after it posted a video of him having sex with his friend’s wife.

As part of the award, Nick Denton, the former Financial Times journalist who founded Gawker, was ordered to pay $10m in punitive damages.

Gawker has appealed against the decision and in a statement on Wednesday said it trusted “the appeals court will correct the outsized Florida jury verdict and reaffirm the law that protects a free and critical press, which is more embattled and important than ever”.

The Hogan case represented a collision between the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees free speech and a free press, and the 14th amendment, which concerns the right to privacy.

The case and broader First Amendment issues have become a talking point in the 2016 presidential election campaign following Donald Trump’s plans to overhaul US libel laws and make it easier to prosecute the media.

Mr Thiel founded PayPal, the online payments group, and was also among the founders of Palantir, the Silicon Valley data and artificial intelligence company.

Gawker, which owns the Gizmodo, Jezebel and Deadspin websites, bolstered its coffers before the Hogan trial, striking an agreement to sell a minority stake to Columbus Nova Technology Partners, an investment group. The value of the deal was not disclosed.

Gawker, its main site, shifted its editorial and business strategy at the end of 2015 with a move into political coverage at the expense of gossip and scandal.

“For readers, especially from a sceptical digital generation, our well-known brands represent important alternatives: unrivalled islands of credibility in a distrusted media,” Mr Denton wrote in a memo to staff at the time.

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said: “We support the right of individuals in the United States and around the world to seek civil redress in cases of defamation. However, we do not support efforts to abuse the process by seeking to punish or bankrupt particular media outlets.”

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