Sunday Times CruddasOn 5 June 2013 Mr Justice Tugendhat handed down a reserved judgment following the pre-trial review in the case of Cruddas v Calvert ([2013] EWHC 1427).  He accepted the case advanced by the claimant, former Conservative Party Treasurer, Peter Cruddas, as to the meaning of the words complained of.  As a result, he struck out the defence and entered judgment for an injunction and damages to be assessed at the trial on 17 June 2013.  Permission to appeal was refused.

The Claimant is a businessman and in March 2012 he was the Co-Treasurer of the Conservative Party.  The First and Second Defendants are  journalists and part of the “Sunday Times”  ‘Insight’ team.  The Third Defendant is the publisher of the “Sunday Times”.

The journalist defendants pretended to be agents for foreign investors who wanted to explore making donations to the Conservative Party. They hired a lobbyist called Sarah Southern and, through her, arranged to have a meeting with the Claimant on 15th March 2012. They carried concealed cameras with an audio recording facilities.

On 25 March 2012 the Sunday Times published four articles. The first began on page 1 and continued on page 2 under the headline ‘Tory treasurer charges £250,000 to meet PM.’ Page 1 also had a photograph of the Claimant. A sub-heading further reported that the day before ‘Cameron’s fundraiser [had been] forced to resign‘. The second article was on pages 8 and 9 under the headline ‘Cash for Cameron: cosy club buys the PM’s ear‘. The third article, also on page 9, had the headline, ‘Pay the money this way and the party won’t pry’. Page 9 carried the fourth article as well. This was written by Mark Adams under the headline ‘Rotten to the Core’.  The Sunday Times also published an editorial in the same issue on the theme ‘Sack the Treasurer and Clean Up Lobbying‘.

The Claimant issued proceedings for libel and malicious falsehood in July 2012complained of the first three articles.  He Claimant pleaded that the meanings attributed to the articles (for the purpose of his claims in both defamation and malicious falsehood) were as follows:

“(1) In return for cash donations to the Conservative Party, the Claimant 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.

(2) The Claimant made the offer, even though he knew that the money offered for secret meetings was to come, in breach of the ban under UK electoral law, from Middle Eastern investors in a Lichtenstein fund; and

(3) further, in order to circumvent and thereby evade the law, the Claimant was happy that the foreign donors should use deceptive devices, such as creating an artificial UK company to donate the money or using UK employees as conduits, so that the true source of the donation would be concealed“.

The Defendants denied that the words bore these meanings and relied on a defence of justification in relation to “lesser meanings” to the effect that the Claimant’s conduct was ” inappropriate, unacceptable and wrong and gave rise to an impression of impropriety“. The Defendants did not raise a Reynolds defence nor any other defence of privilege (or public interest), nor a defence of honest comment.

On 17 May 2013 the Defendants agreed to trial by judge alone and, as a result, on 21 and 22 May 2013 there was the trial of a preliminary issue as to the meaning of the words complained of.

Mr Justice Tugendhat held, in his judgment of 5 June 2013, that

i) For the purposes of the single meaning rule in libel the words complained of bear each of the natural and ordinary meanings pleaded by the Claimant in para 6 of the Amended Particulars of Claim (see para 7 above);

ii) For the purposes of the meaning rule in malicious falsehood the words complained of are reasonably capable of bearing not only those meanings, but also (and subject to one point) the meanings pleaded by the Defendants in paras 7 and 8 of the Amended Defence (see paras 10 and 11 above). The exception is set out in para 113 above. The words complained of probably were so understood by a substantial number of readers. At this hearing I have not been asked to find how many such readers there were. [124]

The judge went to hold that the meaning which he had found the words complained of to bear “connotes conduct which is criminal in England and Wales”.  In a libel case it did not matter whether that connotation was correctly made – so the fact that the word “corruption” was not used in the Bribery Act was irrelevant [47].

Because the articles accused the Claimant of corruption in a criminal sense, Mr Justice Tugendhat  then struck out the justification defence – which only sought to justify the allegation that the Claimant was corrupt in a non-criminal sense.   As the Defendants had no other defence, the Judge entered judgment for damages to be assessed and granted an injunction.

A Sunday Times spokesman was reported as saying:

 “The Sunday Times is applying for permission to appeal the decision of Mr Justice Tugendhat and will continue to seek to defend the undercover journalism behind this public interest report on cash for access to Cameron.”.