Overturning the trial judge, the Court of Appeal has today found that articles published by The Sunday Times following secret recordings of then Treasurer of the Conservative Party, Peter Cruddas, were substantially true in the main allegation of cash for access to the Prime Minister and senior Conservative politicians.
In March 2012 Mr Cruddas had told the newspapers’ undercover reporters (as summarised by the Court of Appeal) “that if they donated large sums to the Conservative Party, they would have an opportunity to influence Government policy and to gain unfair commercial advantage through confidential meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers”. The Court of Appeal found that whilst no criminal offence was suggested, what Mr Cruddas proposed was “unacceptable, inappropriate and wrong”.
Rupert Earle, Partner and Head of Media Litigation at Bates Wells Braithwaite, welcomed the judgment: “Today’s judgment supports and protects undercover journalism in the public interest”.
He noted that as far as individual donors and political parties are concerned, the Court of Appeal, in expressing its view as to what is acceptable conduct, has given important guidance in stating that: “Although large scale donors have direct access to senior ministers on social occasions, it is inappropriate, unacceptable and wrong for the donors to use that access to gain (a) confidential information, (b) enhanced influence over policy-making or (c) unfair commercial advantage. It is also inappropriate, unacceptable and wrong for senior ministers to allow that to happen.”
As far as journalism is concerned, the case is also important in making clear (in quashing a ruling by Mr Justice Tugendhat) that journalists cannot be found liable in malicious falsehood for a foreseeable but incorrect interpretation of what they write which a cynical reader might ascribe to their article. For a journalist to have to disavow every foreseeable but incorrect interpretation would have a chilling effect on free speech.
A modest part of the articles also alleged that Mr Cruddas contemplated acceptance of money from foreign donors, in breach of electoral law, and the appeal was unsuccessful in respect of that. The Court of Appeal accepted the findings of libel and mailicious falsehood by Mr Justice Tugendhat and allowed Mr Cruddas to keep the balance of £50,000 damages to compensate him for this less serious allegation. This is a reduction of £130,000 in the damages and reflects the fact that the main allegation was true. The newspaper will pay half Mr Cruddas’ trial costs. As The Sunday Times paid Mr Cruddas £180,000 in damages and £500,000 in costs following trial, Mr Cruddas will now have to make substantial repayments to the newspaper.
Mr Cruddas has been refused permission by the Court of Appeal to appeal.
Rupert Earle and Mark Scodie of BWB worked closely with Times Newspapers Limited’s in house lawyer Pia Sarma and counsel Richard Rampton QC, Heather Rogers QC and Aidan Eardley.
Please click here to view the judgment.
Posted on 17/03/2015 in BWB NewsBack to Knowledge