Peter Cruddas, Chief Executive of CMC Markets and former Treasurer of the Conservative Party, has today won a resounding victory against The Sunday Times in his libel action against the newspaper and two of its Insight journalists, Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake.
The newspaper has been ordered to pay Mr Cruddas £180,000 in damages (including £15,000 for aggravated damages) and his legal costs. This is one of the highest libel awards in recent years and reflects both the seriousness of the allegations and the damage and distress they caused to Mr Cruddas.
In a damning judgment of The Sunday Times and the two journalists following a two-week trial, Mr Justice Tugendhat found the newspaper report had been untruthful, misleading, vindictive and malicious in its reporting of a meeting that took place between Mr Cruddas and Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake, who had posed as international financiers interested in making a large donation to the Conservative Party. The meeting was covertly filmed and recorded by the journalists with edited clips sent-out to all the major broadcasters on the eve of publication.
On 25 March 2012, The Sunday Times published a front-page article headlined ‘Tory treasurer charges £250,000 to meet PM’ together with three further articles on inside pages that made very serious allegations against Mr Cruddas, including that he was corrupt and willing to act in breach of UK Electoral Law by accepting foreign donations. The Conservative Party took the articles at face value, and Mr Cruddas was forced to resign as Treasurer on the night the Sunday Times articles appeared. The allegations were then picked up and repeated by numerous other media outlets.
Mr Cruddas immediately took legal advice and once he had finally got access to the newspaper’s recording of the meeting, he began his legal claim. Court proceedings were issued on 24 July 2012.
The Sunday Times defended the action by maintaining that the articles it published were true. However, Mr Justice Tugendhat today rejected The Sunday Times’ defence and castigated Mr Calvert and Ms Blake for being malicious, stating, “Mr Calvert and Ms Blake did know that the articles were false… They did have a dominant intention to injure Mr Cruddas and they expressed delight when they learnt that they had caused his resignation.”
In a lengthy judgment that will have major implications for the use of subterfuge in undercover reporting, the Court found that the journalists repeatedly misled their editors about their justification for pursuing the meeting with Mr Cruddas and for using subterfuge against him. Mr Justice Tugendhat commented, “It is very surprising that the journalists should so consistently and seriously have misled the editor as to the basis on which they sought authorisation for the use of subterfuge.”
The journalists went ahead with obtaining authority covertly to record the meeting despite having no evidence to suggest that Mr Cruddas had conducted himself other than with the utmost integrity in both his business dealings and in his role as Treasurer of the Conservative Party.
The documents disclosed by the newspaper and the oral evidence given at trial revealed that the journalists had no justification for using subterfuge in covertly recording Mr Cruddas and were simply on a ‘fishing expedition’. It also shows that, surprisingly, no notes were kept of the key meeting between the journalists and their editors when authority for using subterfuge against Mr Cruddas was given.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Tugendhat questions the reliability of the evidence given by both journalists. Commenting on the basis on which they sought authorisation for the use of subterfuge, he said, “The journalists claimed in evidence that [their news editor] had been kept fully informed. But since I find much of their evidence incredible, I doubt that too.”
The Judge is particularly critical of Heidi Blake. In her previous job, the newspaper she worked for was censured by the Press Complaints Commission for using a level of subterfuge to covertly record Liberal Democrat MPs in their constituency surgeries which was not justified by the public interest. Ms Blake was one of the journalists involved in that story. In giving evidence, Ms Blake said she disagreed with the judgment by the PCC in that particular case. Referring to her attitude, the Judge said, “This answer was typical of her manner in giving evidence. This was a prolonged demonstration of unwillingness and self-assurance to accept anything she had done would have been better done differently.” He said that Ms Blake was “out of her depth” on other matters too.
The Judge analyses the key passages from the transcript of the meeting which demonstrate that the two journalists acted as agent provocateurs by asking Mr Cruddas leading questions (something that the editor of The Sunday Times had expressly warned them not to do), and then inaccurately and unfairly reported Mr Cruddas’ responses in the newspaper.
Following the publication of its articles, The Sunday Times refused to allow Mr Cruddas to view their recording of the meeting until three months after the original publication. The articles led to complaints being made to the police about Mr Cruddas’ alleged breach of electoral law. When, in September last year, the Metropolitan Police wrote to Mr Cruddas confirming that it had concluded there was no evidence of criminal conduct, the Sunday Times did not report this. Further legal victories followed against The Independent (which repeated some of the allegations against Mr Cruddas contained in The Sunday Times articles), Mark Adams, the lobbyist and blogger (who first gave the story to Ms Blake, was one of those who complained to the police, and later repeatedly accused Mr Cruddas of acting illegally), and Private Eye (for their report summarising the journalists’ nomination for the Paul Foot Award). Despite these developments, The Sunday Times refused to correct the allegations made in its articles and, instead, aggravated matters by comparing Mr Cruddas in an editorial to disgraced sports cheat, Lance Armstrong.
In reaching his judgment on the damages for libel Mr Justice Tugendhat refers to Mr Cruddas suffering great personal distress and humiliation including ‘public humiliation from the Prime Minister.’ He goes on to describe the conduct of the defendants in contesting the action both before and at the trial as ‘offensive’ and highlights the importance of the damages awarded to vindicate Mr Cruddas receiving publicity.
Commenting on today’s judgment, Slater and Gordon Media Libel & Defamation Lawyer, who represented Mr Cruddas, said,
“This is a devastating and unequivocal judgment which provides the clear vindication Mr Cruddas deserves. We are delighted that his reputation as a successful and honest businessman and generous philanthropist has been restored. Although the Sunday Times continually maintained both before and during the litigation that this was public interest journalism, they did not defend the case on that basis and clearly there can never be a public interest in publishing malicious and damaging lies. One can only hope that important lessons will be learned from this case about the proper conduct of investigative journalism.”
Peter Cruddas, said, “The dark cloud that has hung over me and my family since The Sunday Times published its malicious lies about me 16 months ago has finally been lifted and justice has been done. My world was turned upside-down when that article was published. I remember vividly having to walk into my offices the day after the article was published and face 500 of my staff, many of whom had a clip of the Sunday Times interview on their video screens. It was humiliating. I was also embarrassed to accept invites to events which meant that my charities suffered. The Conservative Party cut me off within two hours of the story breaking and did not want to hear my side of the story. I was constructively dismissed from my role as Party Treasurer and made to feel like an outcast as the Prime Minister and the Party lined up to criticise me on television and radio. This hurt me immensely and further damaged my reputation.
“Since the article was published I have kept a dignified silence and let the legal process do the talking for me. Perhaps The Sunday Times underestimated me and thought I would quietly disappear but I knew all along that I was telling the truth and that the story was malicious, so I was prepared to fight all the way. I hope my victory shows that this type of journalism employed by the Sunday Times and its journalists Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert is totally unacceptable, particularly post Leveson. It’s ironic that The Sunday Times tried to paint me as corrupt when the evidence has shown that they were practising corrupt journalism, the kind of gutter journalism that gives our great, free press a bad name.
“In taking this case I have shone a light on the type of journalism that is all about selling newspapers and creating a story even if it doesn’t exist, without any regard to the victim. Ms Blake and Mr Calvert had no regard for how I would be affected and damaged by their false story; they were just focused on a story and deliberately ignored the facts. I hope today’s judgment causes The Sunday Times to take a long, hard, look at its editorial practices which in my opinion are rotten to the core.”
“Today is a good day for me. I am delighted that my good name has been restored. My family, friends and legal team have shown me huge support throughout which has kept me going and I sincerely thank them. I would especially like to thank Desmond Browne QC and Matthew Nicklin QC at 5 Raymond Buildings ay Slater and Gordon Lawyers and all their colleagues. Unfortunately, it is very disappointing that the Conservative Party gave a knee-jerk reaction when this story broke without first listening to my side of the story - and haven’t reached out to me since - as they should also be celebrating this victory with me today. The Party’s motives should have been about truth and fairness but, instead, they chose to focus on what was politically less damaging.”
Mr Cruddas is a life-long Conservative supporter. He played a pivotal role in helping the Party win the ‘No to AV’ campaign by donating £600,000 to the campaign and by raising substantial funds as its Treasurer. Mr Cruddas was also integral in setting up the National Citizens Service which helps 16 and 17 year-olds take on new challenges in life. Following a personal request from David Cameron, he donated £600,000 to this charity. Mr Cruddas has donated more than £1.2million of his own money to the Conservative Party since David Cameron became leader.
Writing on his blog today, Lord Ashcroft, who is a former Conservative Party Treasurer and has supported Mr Cruddas throughout his court case, calls on David Cameron to “…offer Mr Cruddas an apology for his criticism of him, and for forcing him to step down as Treasurer with such haste at a time when Mr Cruddas was fulfilling his unpaid role well and effectively. This would be the right thing to do.”
Notes to editors
An order has been granted for The Sunday Times to pay Mr Cruddas £500,000 in legal costs on account by 14 August 2013 with the balance to be paid at a later date. An injunction has also been granted preventing The Sunday Times from republishing its false allegations.
Slater and Gordon Lawyers have offices in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, Derby, Milton Keynes, Merseyside, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and meeting rooms in Bramhall, Cheshire.