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Law Column: A busy summer in the courts (Part Two)

A fortnight ago, I brought you the rather gloomy news that there had been hearings in two libel cases, which had both gone against the publisher.  My last column recounted details about the first of those cases (Flood No. 2) and so this week I’ll complete the picture with information about the second case (Cruddas v Times Newspapers Limited).

Peter Cruddas is a former treasurer of the Conservative Party. In March last year, the Sunday Times published an article alleging that he had corruptly offered for sale the opportunity to influence government policy and gain unfair advantage through secret meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers.

Two journalists from the Sunday Times’ Insight team had conducted an undercover investigation in which they posed as international financiers working for a company called Global Zenith which was considering making donations to the Conservative Party. Each journalist was fitted with a concealed camera and audio recording devices.

The article said Mr Cruddas:

  • had been filmed selling meetings with the Prime Minister in return for donations of a quarter of a million pounds;
  • boasted that “It will be awesome for your business”;
  • knew that the money was due to come from a fund in Lichtenstein that was not eligible to make donations under election law; and
  • was content with foreign donors using deceptive devices, including creating artificial UK companies to donate UK money, to conceal the actual source of the donation.

Following publication of the article, Mr Cruddas was forced to resign from the Conservative Party.

Mr Cruddas sued the Sunday Times and two named journalists for libel and malicious falsehood over three of five articles that appeared in the same edition of the newspaper.

The question of the meaning of “corruptly”, when used in this context, was decided prior to the trial and following an appeal. In the end, the Court of Appeal ruled that it meant “inappropriate, unacceptable and wrong and gave rise to an impression of impropriety”.

The Sunday Times argued quite simply that the article was true.

Following a two week trial, Mr Justice Tugendhat (a veteran of libel cases) found in favour of Mr Cruddas in respect of both his libel claim and that of malicious falsehood. The Judge ruled that the newspaper could not support the allegations made in the articles. Annexed to the Judgement is the Judge’s commentary on the audio and video recordings of the meeting – his interpretation of the words, tone of voice, gestures and mannerisms that were captured.

The Judge awarded £180,000 damages and ordered the Sunday Times to pay Mr Cruddas’ legal fees which are understood to amount to approximately one million pounds. This is one of the highest awards in a libel case in recent years.

In justifying such a high award, the Judge made reference to a number of factors:

  • The seriousness of the allegations and the prominence of the articles which were read by a large number of people.
  • Evidence from the journalists which the Judge said he had found to be “incredible” – his view was that they were “not frank” in Court.
  • The fact that the journalists had misled their Editor, firstly about the basis on which they intended to use subterfuge and covert filming and secondly prior to publication because they knew that the allegations were false.
  • The motive of the journalists which the Judge found to be malicious – he ruled that they had published the article with the “dominant intention” of damaging Mr Cruddas.
  • The very high level of publicity that the articles had attracted.
  • Mr Cruddas’ previously high standing in society as a result of his business successes and his charitable work.
  • The public humiliation suffered by Mr Cruddas.
  • The defendants’ conduct pre-trial and at trial which the Judge deemed to be “offensive.”

This case raises questions about the use of undercover investigations and the material procured using them. Mr Cruddas said that he hoped his victory would show “that this type of journalism…is totally unacceptable, particularly post Leveson.”

Following the Judgement, the Sunday Times said that it believed the articles were based on a matter of public interest which had justified the use of subterfuge and that the journalists conducted the investigation with integrity and under the supervision of the senior editorial team.

The Sunday Times has also announced its intention to appeal the decision, so it appears that this saga could be far from over – we’ll keep you updated with its ultimate outcome. However, for the time-being, this case can be interpreted as a general warning to reporters conducting undercover investigations – the evidence obtained must be reviewed carefully and with a neutral mind to see what it really proves, rather than what it was hoped it would prove.