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LABy Lord Ashcroft KCMG
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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 judge
said that “Mr Calvert and Ms Blake did know that the Articles were false in the
meanings which they knew them to bear. They did have a dominant intention to
injure Mr Cruddas and they expressed delight when they learnt that they had
caused his resignation.”

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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