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Lord Ashcroft: Former Treasurer Peter Cruddas accuses The Sunday Times of “selective” editing and “distorting” the facts

AshcroftBy Lord Ashcroft, KCMG.

Peter Cruddas, the former Treasurer of the Conservative Party, has now filed details of his legal claim against The Sunday Times and two of its journalists.

If this legal action runs its full length, it will, of course, be up to the High Court to decide whether the newspaper and its reporters libelled Mr Cruddas in a series of articles written about him in March of this year.

However, Mr Cruddas’s lengthy “Particulars of Claim” document shows that his lawyers have been busy poring over transcripts of a tape-recorded, two-hour meeting between the self-made businessman and undercover reporters.

I exclusively revealed in my blog of July 25 that Mr Cruddas was suing the newspaper over its story four months earlier that alleged he had offered access to David Cameron in return for large donations.

Having lost the support of the Prime Minister and other senior figures in the party, Mr Cruddas had been forced to resign within a couple of hours of the newspaper hitting the streets on the evening of Saturday, March 24.

Now Mr Cruddas has filed a detailed claim in the High Court against Times Newspapers Ltd, the publisher of The Sunday Times, and two journalists, Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake, both members of their Insight team

Mr Cruddas is seeking unlimited damages, including aggravated damages, for libel and malicious falsehood, along with an injunction preventing the newspaper from repeating its allegations.

Journalists from The Sunday Times hired a lobbyist, set up a fake website and carried out other subterfuge in order to meet him in the guise of being wealthy, prospective donors to the party.

I have now studied Mr Cruddas’s “Particulars of Claim”, which is a public document, and the crux of the dispute is whether The Sunday Times journalists were so selective in their editing of the transcripts that they misled readers over what he had told undercover reporters during their meeting on March 15.

The newspaper published a series of articles about Mr Cruddas in its edition of March 25, with its front-page story headlined: ‘Tory treasurer charges £250,000 to meet PM.” Another article inside the paper was headlined: “Rotten to the core.”

However, the former co-Treasurer has now claimed that selective quotations used by the newspaper did not represent what really happened at the meeting. His lawyers allege, in the new court documents, that the two Insight journalists “deliberately distorted, misquoted and misrepresented what the Claimant had said” through “very substantial editing”.

Mr Cruddas, through his legal team, also claims that the newspaper wrongly alleged that “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.”

It is claimed that The Sunday Times also wrongly alleged “In order to circumvent and thereby evade the law, the Claimant was happy that the foreign donors [undercover reporters] 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.”

Furthermore, Mr Cruddas also claims that the newspaper refused to allow him access to a recording, or transcript, of the meeting on the “bogus ground” that it was protected by the Data Protection Act of 1998. He says that he was not permitted to see a recording of the meeting until June 14 – nearly three months after he had been forced to step down as Treasurer.

Incidentally, even this belated viewing was not out of the kindness of the newspaper’s heart, but because of Mr Cruddas’s complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). For the PCC to investigate his complaint, it had to see a copy of the tape. For Mr Cruddas to respond to the PCC, he also had to see the tape. So his viewing was forced upon the newspaper.

Mr Cruddas’s lawyers have concluded in his claim that: “During the [March 15] Meeting, the Claimant had not offered any form of ‘cash for influence’.”

The Sunday Times has indicated that it stands by its reports and it will contest all Mr Cruddas’s claims. The newspaper is expected to submit a detailed and, by necessity, robust defence to the “Particulars of Claim” in due course.

In another important development, the police have concluded their “assessment” – it was never a criminal investigation – into the events of March 15 and they have decided that they will take no further action. Indeed Mr Cruddas has been informed  that “there is no evidence of any criminal conduct…either directly or by implication, during the course of The Sunday Times investigation.”

I expressed concerns in my blog of July 25 over whether Mr Cruddas may have been forced by the party hierarchy to resign before he had been given a chance to put his side of events. I also expressed regret over the lack of gratitude towards Mr Cruddas – for all his hard work – immediately after he had fallen on his sword just ten months into his tenure as co-Treasurer.

It is once all the evidence in this legal action has been heard that the party must consider if lessons can, and should, be learnt from the event of five months ago.

However, in the meantime, the Conservative Party should certainly consider suspending the internal inquiry it established, under Lord Gold, to look into funding, in general, and the allegations against Mr Cruddas, in particular.

Back in March, the party – confronted by The Sunday Times’s story – must have considered it did not have time to evaluate Mr Cruddas’s side of events before it insisted he must resign as Treasurer. Now he deserves the chance to let his legal action run its course and it would seem increasingly inappropriate for Mr Cruddas to give evidence to Lord Gold while his libel action is pending.

Indeed, if Mr Cruddas were to win his libel action, the Prime Minister might well conclude that the party had acted too hastily, back on that Saturday evening in March, in assuming Mr Cruddas’s “guilt”.

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