Top Tory not libelled over Nadir cash claim

Mr Judge accused the Guardian of `anti-Conservative scare-mongering'

A top Tory Party official was not libelled by an article in the the Guardian newspaper which suggested that he faced court action for obstructing investigations into donations to the party by fugitive tycoon Asil Nadir, a High Court jury ruled yes terday.

Paul Judge, director general of the Conservative Party, faces a £200,000 legal bill for the seven-day hearing he instituted independently of the party.

The article, written by Paul Brown and David Pallister and published in September 1993, alleged that staff at Conservative Central Office in Smith Square, London, resorted to "old tricks" to hinder inquiries by trustees acting in Mr Nadir's personal bankruptcy.

Mr Judge, 45, of Elmbridge, Worcestershire, sued for libel after the front-page article suggested that the accountancy firm Robson Rhodes was giving a "final opportunity to provide information voluntarily" about donations totalling £440,000 before issuing a court summons. Mr Judge, the newspaper said, would be obliged to answer questions at the High Court or face contempt proceedings.

The story added that Robson Rhodes's solicitors had been "reduced to delivering copies of letters by hand to Mr Judge at Smith Square, with accompanying notes saying: `We hope this does not get lost between the front office and your desk'."

Charles Gray QC, for the defence, said that the first request for information was lodged with the party on 16 June 1993 and that the matter was finally concluded on 21 October. "You may think I am entitled to be critical of the fact that 18 weeks passed before relatively limited information was handed over. It was information that had throughout this period had been in the possession of the Conservative Central Office."

However, Mr Judge insisted that he had fully co-operated with the trustees and that at no time was he aware of a threat of court action. Two days before the article appeared, he had a cordial conversation with Neil Cooper, the joint trustee at Robson Rhodes. He wrote to him afterwards promising further investigations if Mr Cooper had information that Mr Nadir or his nominees had paid more than the £440,000 the party had already declared. There had been press speculation in June that year that the Conservative Party had received up to £1.7m from Mr Nadir.

Mr Judge also claimed that the Guardian had acted maliciously in publishing the article. David Eady QC, for Mr Judge, had told the court in his opening address. "All of us here should not be concerned with party political points."

He later added: "This is a trial about Paul Judge personally, not the Conservative Party."

And Mr Judge has been keen to stress this past week that when the Guardian named him it was his probity they were questioning, not the party's.

However, tacked on to Mr Judge's statement of claims was the suggestion that the two journalists had written their article for "the purpose of sensational anti-Conservative scandal-mongering" and that the newspaper's sole concern was to "embarrass the Conservative Party" regardless of the facts or what that would do to Mr Judge's reputation.

Evidence for Mr Judge's claim was based on a front-page article that Mr Brown had written three months earlier on 22 June 1993, at the height of the controversy surrounding donations to the Conservative Party, reporting that the party had received a £7m cash donation from the Saudi royal family before the 1992 general election. Six months later the paper paid out hefty libel damages and printed an apology.

In Mr Judge's mind, that clinched it. His counsel called it an "underlying campaign . . . an attitude to the Conservative Party, so that facts come second and prejudices first".

Mr Judge and his wife Anne looked stunned as the jury delivered its 10-2 majority verdict. He said later: "It is clearly a very disappointing verdict, but I think everything did come out in court which showed we acted perfectly properly."

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