Journalists Caught in the Crossfire of Defamation

Cruddas v Calver [2013] EWHC 2298 (QB) saw journalists and a publisher (the “Defendants”) up in arms and ready to appeal a decision holding them liable for libel and malicious falsehood (of posing as international financiers in an undercover operation) with the former treasurer of the Conservative Party Peter Cruddas (“the Claimant”).

Mr Cruddas took part in a meeting with the journalists who falsely posed as financiers and discussed the possibility of making large donations to the Conservative Party, in return for politician influence. As a result, three articles were written and published by the Defendants and the former treasurer alleged that the articles contained defamatory meanings.

The article strap lines read as follows:

‘Tory treasurer charges £250,000 to meet PM’.

‘Cash for Cameron: cosy club buys the PM’s ear’.

‘Pay the money this way and the party won’t pry’.

Shortly after the publication of the articles in the Sunday Times Mr Cruddas argued that the meanings attributed to the articles amounted to defamation and malicious falsehood claims. The meanings attributed to the article for the purpose of his claims 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”.

In response, the Defendants argued “lesser meanings” and denied the allegation that the words bore the meanings alleged by the Claimant. The Defendants countered that Mr Crudden’s conduct was “inappropriate, unacceptable and wrong and gave rise to an impression of impropriety”.

However, the Court did not agree and said that the words in question connoted “conduct which is criminal in England and Wales”. On appeal, it was found that “for the purposes of the libel claims the meaning of the articles does not include an allegation of corruption contrary to the criminal law” and so the Claimant was ordered to pay the Defendants 50% of their costs on the appeal.

It would appear as though there is a fine line between the use of words and the actual meaning of words. Although the Defendants did not make explicit allegations of criminal corruption the words used in the articles suggested a blurred boundary of defence.

For further information, please contact Dominic Green on 020 7227 7411 or dominic.green@rlb-law.com.


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