The Smugday Times

It’s a good thing people like wronged Peter Cruddas can get justice when newspapers become desperate

The judgment handed down by Mr Justice Tugendhat in Peter Cruddas v Jonathan Calvert & Ors [2013], will have left many wondering whether any lessons have been learned from the Leveson inquiry.

On 25 March 2012 the Sunday Times accused Cruddas, then treasurer of the Conservative Party, of corruptly offering for sale the chance to influence government policy and gain advantage from secret meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers. The articles also alleged Cruddas was prepared to accept donations from abroad in breach of UK electoral law. 

Cruddas sued the paper and its two Insight journalists for libel and malicious falsehood. After a two-week trial he was awarded £180,000 damages and his costs, with £500,000 to be paid on account.

The allegations derived from a meeting with Cruddas at which the journalists posed as financiers considering donating to the Tories. The meeting was covertly recorded and filmed by the journalists.

In almost every public reference to this case, including its reaction to the judgment, the Sunday Times has described this as ‘public interest journalism’. However, the Reynolds qualified privilege defence that protects responsible journalism was not pleaded by the paper. Its only defence was justification. 

As the judge commented: “The case does, plainly, raise issues of public interest but public interest is not necessary or relevant to a defence of truth. The truth is the truth, whether telling it is in the public interest or not. But telling a falsehood would not be in the public interest.”

He then went on to show how hard the journalists had been chasing the story and how the PCC code was treated as if it did not exist – two of Leveson’s criticisms. For example, by the time the meeting took place and despite an investigation that had been continuing for three months, “the journalists had no evidence upon which to suspect Mr Cruddas personally of impropriety or of misleading the public” and the investigation “had become a fishing expedition”.

The judge determined that the journalists had not just told lies, but had done so knowingly and maliciously. He found that the allegations went “to Mr Cruddas’ personal honour and integrity” and that Cruddas had “suffered great personal distress” as well as “public humiliation from the Prime Minister”.

This case shows that when journalists are contemplating the use of covert recording, which inevitably involves a breach of the subject’s privacy, it is vital that a thorough review of their evidence to support it is undertaken. Tough love is needed, however enthusiastic journalists may be and however reluctant a paper might be to spike a story.

One might hope that the response of a national paper to such a judgment would be an expression of apology. Instead, the Sunday Times issued a statement announcing “the Insight team conducted the investigation with integrity and with supervision and full backing of the senior editorial team and the advice of the newspaper’s lawyers”.

For all who treasure responsible journalism and freedom of expression, this reaction is profoundly depressing. But it shows how important it is for those who fall foul of untrue allegations in the media to have full access to a justice system that can put things right