Lord Ashcroft: As Peter Cruddas wins a resounding High Court victory against The Sunday Times, the Party needs to learn major lessons from this debacle
By Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC. Follow Lord Ashcroft on Twitter.
Peter Cruddas, the former Conservative Party Treasurer, has won a crushing victory in his defamation and malicious falsehood claims against The Sunday Times.
Mr Cruddas was today awarded damages of £180,000 (including £15,000 for aggravated damages) for being libelled by the newspaper. The Sunday Times also faces a massive bill for both its and Mr Cruddas’s legal costs.
At the High Court in central London, Mr Justice Tugendhat delivered his written judgment and was utterly scathing in his criticism of the newspaper. “The conduct of the Defendants in contesting the action both before and at the trial has been offensive,” he concluded.
The two journalists, Insight editor Jonathan Calvert and reporter Heidi Blake, who targeted Mr Cruddas – and whose inaccurate, misleading stories forced his resignation within hours of being published – were publicly castigated for being malicious.
The lengthy judgment means that The Sunday Times’s attacks on Mr Cruddas have been shown to be false, unfair and, above all, vindictive. Mr Cruddas, on the other hand, emerges from his 16-month legal battle with his good name restored, having been found to have behaved neither illegally, nor improperly, in his role as Treasurer.
Instead, Mr Cruddas, a wealthy self-made businessman and leading charity organiser, was given public sympathy from the judge over his ordeal. The judgment indicated that Mr Cruddas had unfairly suffered “great personal distress” and had even suffered “public humiliation from the Prime Minister”.
I congratulate Mr Cruddas on his victory and make no apology for returning to the subject of his lengthy dispute against The Sunday Times. I have blogged on the issue no less than five times before today because I think there are important lessons – for journalism and the Conservative Party – to be learnt from this whole, sorry episode.
I disclosed in my blog of 25 July 2012 that Mr Cruddas was suing Times Newspapers Ltd and two of its journalists, Mr Calvert and Ms Blake, over stories published in March last year that alleged he had offered access to the Prime Minister in return for large donations to the party.
Mr Cruddas had the misfortune to walk into a carefully-laid trap: in an old-fashioned undercover sting, journalists set up a fake organisation, with a fake website and other subterfuge, in order to meet him in the guise of being wealthy, prospective donors to the party.
It has now emerged that Mr Cruddas clearly and repeatedly told the undercover reporters that they had to follow the rules relating to political donations and, if they did donate, it would not buy them access. He said that “when you give to the Conservative Party it doesn’t buy you access to anybody.”
In the end, The Sunday Times relied on a defence of truth, as opposed to other options it had earlier considered. However, Mr Cruddas and his legal team insisted that selective, dishonest editing had given a false impression of the events that had, in fact, taken place during his meeting with the undercover reporters.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Tugendhat time and again sides against the paper and with Mr Cruddas. He was in no doubt that the four articles published by The Sunday Times created a “misleading impression” and that some of Mr Cruddas’s comments had been taken out of context.
The judge noted how Mr Cruddas had, in reality, tried to “lower the expectations” of the two prospective donors, and reserved some of his harshest comments for the two undercover journalists, Mr Calvert and Ms Blake. Both had deeply uncomfortable moments in the witness box: Mr Calvert had been warned by his paper not to act as an “agent provocateur” but told the court he did not know the meaning of the term.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Tugendhat said he did not believe Mr Calvert when he said he did not understand the term “agent provocateur”. The judge said that both Mr Calvert and Ms Blake’s statements to the court showed that they did not understand electoral law. He said that Ms Blake was “out of her depth” on other matters too.
Since my first blog on the subject 14 months ago, I have revealed how Mr Cruddas won a series of victories. In early May last year, the Electoral Commission revealed it was taking no action against him.
In early September last year, the Metropolitan Police wrote to Mr Cruddas confirming that it had concluded there was no evidence of criminal conduct. Further legal victories followed against The Independent and then Mark Adams, the lobbyist and blogger who first worked with The Sunday Times and later repeatedly accused Mr Cruddas of acting illegally.
I am one of the few people who has an insight into quite how stressful the last 16 months have been for Mr Cruddas. When I was Treasurer of the Party under William Hague’s leadership, I was forced to sue The Times back in 1999 when the paper pursued a persistent and underhand smear campaign against me as it tried, but failed, to blacken my name.
I had some worrying and uneasy times 14 years ago, but I was immensely fortunate that the party leader of the day, William Hague, was unwavering in his support towards me even when there were others in the party who were less resolute. I wrote about this chapter of my life in my book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times which can be downloaded from www.lordashcroft.com.
The Sunday Times, one of Britain’s most powerful and influential newspapers, has emerged from its legal battle against Mr Cruddas with its reputation badly damaged and heads at the paper must surely roll over this debacle.
The newspaper was consistently robust in its defence. However, being robust is not enough: ultimately you also have to be right and, as today’s judgment shows, The Sunday Times’s two reporters, news executives and legal team got it wrong at every step of the way.
Investigative journalism at its best is a noble practice and sometimes reporters do, like police officers, have to go undercover to expose great wrongs and to entrap serious criminals. As the founder of the Crimestoppers charity, I am a huge supporter of the nation’s fight against crime.
However, I believe that journalists, like police officers once again, should only go undercover if they already have evidence of wrong-doing: not just – as clearly happened in the case of Mr Cruddas – simply embark on “fishing expeditions” in the hope of encouraging someone to make some imprudent remarks that might be damaging, particularly if taken out of context.
Roy Greenslade, a former senior newspaper executive, recently wrote a fascinating blog headlined “Journalism: to sting or not to sting?” for The Guardian that looked at these issues in detail.
However, the Conservative Party, as well as the media, needs to ask itself searching questions about the way Mr Cruddas was treated after being approached by The Sunday Times on the afternoon of Saturday 24 March 2012, just hours after the story was due to hit the streets.
Mr Cruddas quite rightly alerted the party’s hierarchy to events and must have hoped for, even expected, its full support. Yet, despite contradicting the paper’s version of events, he was forced to resign within hours and was ostracised by senior party figures (except, predictably, Michael Gove) over the next few weeks and months. He has had no Party invitations since his resignation.
In the aftermath of Mr Cruddas’s enforced departure, the Prime Minister, no less, said in a speech: “This is not the way that we raise money in the Conservative Party, it shouldn't have happened. It's quite right that Peter Cruddas has resigned.”
However, in his judgment today, Mr Justice Tugendhat said: “The Prime Minister did not know what Mr Cruddas had said. All he knew was what The Sunday Times had reported. This speech by the Prime Minister was a massive public humiliation for Mr Cruddas.”
I hope that Mr Cameron will now offer Mr Cruddas an apology for his criticism of him, and for forcing him to step down as Treasurer with such haste when Mr Cruddas was fulfilling his unpaid role well and effectively. That would be the right thing to do.
Surely the instincts of our Party should always be to stand by one of its own until it has been proved that an individual has acted illegally or improperly even if it may be politically appropriate in certain circumstances to suspend someone pending an outcome.
There are a number of questions that need to be answered over the coming weeks. In the aftermath of The Sunday Times’s story, the party set up an inquiry under Lord Gold to look into funding, in general, and the allegations against Mr Cruddas, in particular.
Given today’s judgment, I strongly suspect that Mr Cruddas has no appetite for giving evidence to such an inquiry, especially since he no longer has any serious allegations to answer. Perhaps, given that the inquiry was an over-the top, knee-jerk reaction to what has now proved to be a false premise, it needs to be quietly wound up sooner rather than later.
This whole episode involving Mr Cruddas has not been our Party’s finest hour.
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