A former Tory MP has failed in her attempt to sue the London Evening Standard over an article which criticised her in relation to the MPs’ expenses scandal.
Jacqui Lait’s High Court application was rejected by Mr Justice Eady, who held that the newspaper’s defence of fair comment was bound to succeed.
Ms Lait, who stepped down from the Commons this year, had put her name to a letter in The Times in which five women MPs expressed concerns about the possible consequences of the Kelly Report into reforming Parliamentary expenses.
This led to an article in the Standard which she said was defamatory.
She claimed that the article meant that her public opposition to a reform banning additional expenses for MPs living within reasonable commuting distance of Westminster could be regarded as hypocritical and not motivated by concern for the safety of women MPs, or was apt, rightly, to provoke public anger.
The article also mistakenly and incorrectly referred to her as having been “forced” to repay nearly £25,000 having made a capital gain on the sale of a home funded by the taxpayer.
Mark Warby QC, for the newspaper, had argued that even if the reference to having to repay £25,000 was wrong, and even though there was no basis for attributing to Mrs Lait an insincere motive for having put her name to the letter, there was still a defence of honest comment.
Mr Justice Eady said: “The question is whether the article is capable of bearing that meaning and, if it is, whether there is a viable defence of fair comment in respect of it.”
On the facts, he said the inclusion of the false allegation about the £25,000 would not preclude the newspaper from succeeding in a fair comment defence, provided that the comment was “fair” in relation to the facts which were accurately stated.
The judge said the newspaper had argued that people might well be angered, not so much because of hypocrisy, but because MPs who had claimed expenses under the old system should slink away in shame and keep their mouths shut in relation to proposals for reform.
“For these reasons, a jury of 12 citizens, which would no doubt include voters and taxpayers, could (at the least) come to the conclusion that, notwithstanding the failure to establish hypocrisy, the rather ill-formulated observation about justifiable ‘ire’ constitutes fair comment,” he added.