Former MP Frank Cook loses expenses libel case
Former Labour MP Frank Cook lost his libel case against the Sunday Telegraph today over reports he claimed £5 on expenses to cover money put into a collection by an aide representing him at a Battle of Britain memorial service.
Mr Justice Tugendhat had already held at the High Court that the words about which Mr Cook complained were honest comment.
Today he said Mr Cook had failed in his attempt to defeat the defence by proving malice - that the newspaper or its journalists did not believe their comments were justified.
Mr Cook sued over three articles, including a leading article, which appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 31 2009, reporting that his Parliamentary expenses claims included one for reimbursement of the donation, made by an aide representing the then MP for Stockton North.
Mr Cook, who reimbursed the aide, admitted having made the claim for £5 - which was disallowed by Parliamentary authorities - but said he did so by mistake.
Mr Justice Tugendhat said that on May 9 he ruled the articles were all comment, rather than statements of fact, and they meant that Mr Cook's claim was particularly embarrassing given his support of the campaign to commemorate a Battle of Britain hero; that Mr Cook thought it appropriate to make a claim for a refund of £5; and that at the time he made the claim he did not believe he could justify it to the public.
The judge said there were two issues - whether an honest person could express the comments on the basis of the admitted facts, and Mr Cook's allegation of malice.
He accepted the submission by David Price QC, for the newspaper, that an honest person could believe Mr Cook had thought it appropriate to make the claim while at the same time not believing he could justify it to the public, if the public were to find out.
"The rules governing the reimbursement of MPs' expenses were not necessarily rules or standards which the public would accept as proper," Mr Justice Tugendhat said.
"There is no inconsistency in believing that a claim may be justifiable or appropriate under one set of rules while at the same time believing that it was not justifiable under some other rules or standard. What is justifiable legally is not always justifiable morally.
"In my judgment it is quite plain that each of the three comments is one which could have been made by an honest person, and which is germane to the subject matter criticised."
The Sunday Telegraph journalists believed Mr Cook thought it appropriate to claim the £5 on his expenses, and did not accept he could have done it by mistake - the claim was in his handwriting - although it might have been an error of judgment, the judge said.
Mr Cook had failed to establish the journalists lacked belief in the justification for comments made, Mr Justice Tugendhat said, adding: "For these reasons this whole claim must fail. Since the plea of malice fails, the defence of fair comment succeeds. There is no need to consider the other defences that are pleaded. The decision on this preliminary issue is all that need be decided."
After the judgment, Sunday Telegraph editor Ian MacGregor said: "This has been an important case for press freedom and I am delighted that The Sunday Telegraph has been fully vindicated.
"Of all the MPs who featured in the Telegraph's 2009 MPs' expenses investigation, Frank Cook was the only one to bring a libel action.
"As part of his case he attacked the honesty and credibility of our senior reporter, Patrick Sawer, and leader writer, Alasdair Palmer.
"Mr Justice Tugendhat remarked that despite the 'thorough and skilful' cross-examination to which our journalists were subjected neither had been shaken.
"This judgment shows again the quality of the work our journalists do, often in challenging circumstances, and underlines the legitimacy of the investigation as a matter of enormous public interest."
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