Published:


LABy Lord
Ashcroft KCMG PC. Follow Lord Ashcroft on Twitter.

The Sunday Times’s “cash for access exposé” of
March last year has had distressing repercussions for two individuals.

The first is
Peter Cruddas, the Conservative Party Treasurer, who was forced to resign his
position within hours of the first edition of the newspaper hitting the
streets.

Mr Cruddas,
however, enjoyed his day
of reckoning earlier this week
, when he was awarded damages of £180,000,
plus massive costs, after he won his defamation and malicious falsehood claims
against the newspaper. Today The Sunday
Times
was refused permission to appeal on the grounds it had no real
prospects of success as the issues are essentially ones of fact.


Mr Cruddas,
a self-made businessman, was robust and wealthy enough to look after himself in
his legal action against the paper even if, as he said after the hearing, it
left a “dark cloud” over him and his family for 16 months.

The second
victim of the newspaper’s “scoop” is far less robust and less wealthy – meaning
that she has had to suffer in silence as her career was destroyed. She is, if
you like, the collateral damage from this sorry affair.

Sarah
Southern has always maintained a dignified public silence over the events of
early last year but, with her permission, I am able to tell her side of events
for the first time.

For those
not familiar with the story, Miss Southern was the political consultant who –
after falling for a newspaper sting – introduced two undercover journalists to
Mr Cruddas, thereby inadvertently bringing about his downfall, as well as her
own.

There are
those who will think that Miss Southern was, at best, naïve and, at worst,
downright foolish, to be duped by The
Sunday Times
, especially as it came only weeks after a similar publicised
sting on a leading public relations firm. However, in Miss Southern’s defence,
the undercover operation targeting her was far more sophisticated, lengthy and
costly.

So, has the
penalty – her private and professional life being thrown into turmoil – met
with the (non-existent) “crime”? I would strongly suggest not, particularly as
it is now abundantly clear that neither she, nor Mr Cruddas, committed any
offence or behaved improperly. If Miss Southern was guilty of anything, it was
simply a desire to impress potential clients and win their business.

As with Mr
Cruddas, Miss Southern had been told by both the Metropolitan Police and the
Electoral Commission, which dutifully looked into complaints against her, that
she had done nothing wrong and they planned to take no further action.

At this
point, I should declare an “interest” in that I have known Miss Southern for
approaching a decade as a result of our mutual support for the Conservative
Party.

I first got
to know her after she started to work in the autumn of 2004 as the national
organiser of Conservative Future, the party’s youth wing. Since then, our paths
have crossed on and off, including when she worked for David Cameron’s ‘events
and visits’ team in the run-up to the 2010 election.

Miss
Southern says that, after being introduced through an intermediary, she
received a phone call to her mobile phone early on the evening of 4 January
2012 from a “representative” of a supposed wealth fund, Global Zenith.

As well as
setting up a false website and giving false names, Hayley Harris (aka Heidi
Blake) and John Brewster (aka Jonathan Calvert), from the supposed
Lichtenstein-based “fund”, they spent a small fortune to allay her suspicions
as they claimed they wanted her to work for them.

On 18
January, Miss Southern was flown business class by Global Zenith (aka The Sunday Times) from London to Zurich
and met by a chauffeur-driven Mercedes that took her to a luxury hotel. Later
she was wined, dined and wooed by “Ms Harris” and “Mr Brewster”. They
apparently said they had a substantial fund to invest in Britain, and they were
particularly keen to take a stake in the Royal Mail as it was being considered
for privatization.

Some will
believe that Miss Southern should have carried out more thorough investigation
into her new clients, but she says she conducted, through internet searches and
the like, all the basic checks available to a sole operator. She says too that
she liked the two “business executives” and was eager to help them.
Furthermore, of course, she wanted to earn a fee for her work. So she put
together a proposal and was delighted when she landed the “contract”.

The duo
remained in contact with Miss Southern through face-to-face meetings, email and
phone over the next three months, exploring the possibility of meeting senior
Tory politicians. They were always professional and efficient except –
surprise, surprise – when it came to signing off her agreed six-month contract
and paying her monthly fees. Needless to say, she never received a penny for
the work that she did for them.

At their
request, Miss Southern then arranged for “Ms Harris” and “Mr Brewster” to meet
Mr Cruddas with a view to making a donation to the party. This meeting took
place on 15 March last year at Mr Cruddas’s London offices – a meeting that was
secretly video recorded and which formed the basis of The Sunday Times’s four high-profile stories more than a week
later.

On the
afternoon of Saturday, 24 March, as Miss Southern was returning to London with
a friend from a day out, she received news that she has said “was like being
hit by a train”: a call from Jonathan Calvert, the head of the The Sunday Times’s Insight team, who
informed her that he was sending her an email relating to a story the paper
intended to run the next day.

Miss
Southern says that she did not respond to any of the specific claims against
her because, without the benefit of time to consider her answers, she did not
want to “add fuel to the fire”. For the same reason, she shut down her website,
Facebook and Twitter accounts that day.

That night
images of her – from secretly-filmed videos – were on the BBC1 news. The next
day her name was spread liberally over articles in The Sunday Times, although the main thrust of them was that Mr
Cruddas had allegedly offered access to the Prime Minister in return for
substantial donations to the Conservative Party.

Soon Miss
Southern realised that every minute she had spent in the company of, or talking
to, the undercover reporters had been recorded. She says that she barely ate
for a week, refused to leave the refuge of a friend’s house for a fortnight and
still does not feel confident enough to return to the “Westminster village”.

As with Mr
Cruddas, she received no formal contact from the Conservative Party or Number
10, but she is grateful for private messages of support from family, friends
and political contacts (including both senior Conservative and Labour political
figures).

However,
Miss Southern’s clients drifted away one by one in the light of the adverse
publicity and her being too shocked to work normally. Eventually, she decided
to close her business down and she is now unemployed.

Miss
Southern says that she feels “violated” by the newspaper and feels the eight
years she put into building a career in politics has all been in vain.

Last month,
in fact, she was in line for a good job, and one she would have liked, but
after doing “due diligence” on her, her prospective employers discovered her
episode with The Sunday Times and
told her that “your past has caught up with you”. The anticipated job offer did
not materialise.

Miss
Southern is remorseful that her actions inadvertently led to Mr Cruddas’s
resignation as Treasurer. She is equally distraught that her own life is in
turmoil and that she has suffered from acute stress. However, she is now “delighted”
that Mr Cruddas won his two claims against the paper, and that the tactics and
motives of the two journalists were so fiercely criticised by the judge.

Miss
Southern is mentioned dozens of times in Mr
justice Tugendhat’s judgment
and she considers it has gone a long way to
restoring her reputation. He noted, for example, that the initial recorded
meeting with her and the source of the original tip-off to the
paper “produced no evidence to support his allegation, and strong evidence to
refute it.”

Even if Miss
Southern’s critics are right and she was foolish to be duped by the newspaper,
even if she did make some indiscreet comments thinking she was speaking privately
to two new contacts whom she had warmed to, I do not believe she deserved what
she has described as the “living hell” of the past 16 months.

As I have
said before, newspapers can, on occasions, justify subterfuge to expose great
evils and wrongdoings by public figures and others. But how can any reputable newspaper justify devoting
thousands of pounds and several months to destroying the life of a young career
woman who did nothing wrong?

Comments are closed.