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Regional daily in libel payout to ex council boss

A former council leader has accepted “very substantial” damages from a regional daily over a claim that there were grounds to suspect that he had committed fraud to advance a planning application.

Bernard Theobald, who was singer Barbara Dickson’s manager before entering politics, had sued over a series of articles which appeared in the Lincolnshire Echo.

The stories caused serious distress and embarrassment to Mr Theobald, the former leader of West Lindsey District Council and former chairman of its planning committee,  his counsel, Ronald Thwaites QC, told Mr Justice Tugendhat at the High Court today.

The first article, at the start of December 2009, alleged that there were good and solid reasonable grounds to suspect Mr Theobald had committed fraud in relation to the application, which he had made the previous June, Mr Thwaites said.

Three days later, the newspaper repeated the allegation, and also claimed that Mr Theobald had lied in denying  its claim that his planning application had resulted in a council officer’s suspension and investigation by the Audit Commission.

In January 2010, a third article alleged that Mr Theobald was disgraced by reason of having acted in a seriously improper way in order to advance his application.

In a statement read out at the High Court today, Mr Thwaites said:  “As the defendant accepts, there were never any grounds to suspect Mr Theobald of fraud in relation to his planning application or of having acted in an improper manner in order to advance his planning application.

“Further, there was no basis whatsoever to state that he was disgraced or to impute that he was lying. There was nothing to justify the allegations as published. The allegations made against Mr Theobald were completely false and should never have been published.

“The fact is that neither the internal District Council investigation referred to in the first two articles, nor the Audit Commission investigation, were prompted by nor investigations into Mr Theobald’s planning application. Moreover, the suspension of the planning officer referred to was wholly unrelated to the application or any actions relating to Bernard Theobald. Indeed, the application had not even been made at the time of the Officer’s suspension.

“The defendant has agreed to pay Mr Theobald a very substantial sum by way of compensation together with his legal costs.”#

Manuel Barca QC for the Echo said:  “Through me, the defendant apologises fully and unreservedly to Mr Theobald for the serious distress and embarrassment caused as a result of the publication of these false allegations, and welcomes this opportunity to set the record straight.

The Echo’s apology can be read in full here.