New witness emerges in libel claim by Royal Bank's chief

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The Independent Online

A High-Profile libel action by Sir Fred Goodwin, the chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, against The Sunday Times suffered a setback yesterday after a key witness emerged with a different version of events on a crucial allegation.

A High-Profile libel action by Sir Fred Goodwin, the chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, against The Sunday Times suffered a setback yesterday after a key witness emerged with a different version of events on a crucial allegation.

The libel action concerns three specific claims printed in the Prufrock diary column of the newspaper in October.

According to the legal claim, these allegations have "seriously damaged" Sir Fred and were "calculated to expose him to ridicule". RBS and Sir Fred flatly deny all three claims.

The contentious articles claimed that Sir Fred had wanted to have a private road built between the paper's new Edinburgh headquarters and the city's airport. Secondly, it was reported that the RBS chief executive "has been seeking membership of Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society" but had been told he must join the 10-year waiting list. Thirdly, The Sunday Times said that Sir Fred had had "a personal on-site cabin" built for him to inspect the new headquarters, which is still under construction.

However, a witness at Bruntsfield golf club supports the story that interest had been expressed in Sir Fred joining. Although Sir Fred did not personally contact the club, his personal assistant rang earlier this year to enquire about him becoming a member.

David Sandford, the club secretary at Bruntsfield, said Sir Fred's "PA" contacted him in the "spring". Mr Sandford said he had a clear recollection of the conversation, which lasted about two minutes. He said he told the PA that candidates for membership needed to be proposed and seconded by club members of five years' standing. The waiting list was 10 years for full membership and three to five years for weekday membership, he said he told the PA.

"I was then asked if I knew who Sir Fred Goodwin was and I said 'Yes'," Mr Sandford said.

He said the conversation ended with the PA telling Mr Sandford that "Sir Fred will be disappointed". That, Mr Sandford said "hand on Bible" was his recollection of the conversation.

"I've got no axe to grind in this matter whatsoever ... this matter is between Sir Fred and The Sunday Times," he said.

According to Mr Sandford, Bruntsfield - unlike other clubs - had no fast-track system for admitting certain candidates. "We bank with RBS but that makes no difference to becoming a member," he said.

On the golf club point, the lawsuit, which was filed jointly by Sir Fred and RBS, said: "The first claimant has never applied to be a member of the Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society nor has he had any other communication with that organisation."

Bruntsfield, one of the most prestigious clubs in the Edinburgh area, was founded in 1761. It is about four miles from RBS's new £350m global headquarters.

The Sunday Times declined to comment, though it is understood that the newspaper stands by its stories.

RBS would not comment on the golf issue but in a general statement, the bank said: "This action was not taken lightly, and we only did so having given The Sunday Times every opportunity to resolve matters by agreement. The allegations made in the diary pieces were damaging to the organisation and it would have been quite wrong to leave such allegations unchallenged."

RBS and Sir Fred are seeking damages "in excess" of £15,000. The Sunday Times article implied that Sir Fred held the conversation with Bruntsfield and said he was "livid" when told of the long waiting list. The newspaper wrote: "Fred apparently demanded to know if Bruntsfield knew who he was. Yes, came the reply, without a member's badge."

The Sunday Times said that Sir Fred's "desire" for a private road to the nearby airport had been to avoid the existing A8 public route. "It seems that travelling 10 minutes on the A8 is too bourgeois", the newspaper wrote. The lawsuit said these words meant that Sir Fred and RBS had "needlessly squandered substantial sums" of company money on the road project.

Earlier this year, the Prufrock column in The Sunday Times withdrew a different story relating to the RBS headquarters. It apologised for suggesting a special "scallops kitchen" had been ordered for it.

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