The former Conservative party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas corruptly offered access to David Cameron and other leading members of the Government in exchange for donations, the Court of Appeal has found.
The Sunday Times claimed vindication over a series of articles which a panel of judges found had demonstrated that Mr Cruddas offered donors the opportunity to influence Government policy and gain an unfair advantage through secret meetings with the Prime Minister.
The judges reduced an £180,000 libel award made to businessman against Times Newspapers in July 2013 to £50,000, and ordered Mr Cruddas to repay the £130,000 plus interest by the end of the month.
Mr Cruddas’s repayments to the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper group are estimated to total more than £300,000.
However the Appeal court upheld a ruling of libel and malicious falsehood against the newspaper over claims that Mr Cruddas, 61, was willing to breach UK electoral law in pursuit of foreign donations.
Mr Cruddas brought the claim against Times Newspapers and two members of the Sunday Times’s Insight team, who posed as potential donors, over three articles which appeared in March 2012.
Lord Justice Jackson said that the trial judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat got it wrong in one of his findings in relation to the truth of the meanings of the articles.
The appeal judge said: “On a proper reading of the transcript of a meeting on 15 March 2012, the following is clear. Mr Cruddas was effectively saying to the journalists that if they donated large sums to the Conservative Party, they would have an opportunity to influence Government policy and to gain unfair commercial advantage through confidential meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers. That was unacceptable, inappropriate and wrong.”
The judge added: “What Mr Cruddas said at the meeting does not represent the true position of the Conservative party. The Prime Minister has dissociated himself and the party from what Mr Cruddas said.”
However the judge, sitting with Lord Justice Ryder and Lord Justice Christopher Clarke, agreed with Mr Justice Tugendhat that the newspaper was guilty of libel and malicious falsehood over claims that Cruddas knew that the money offered for the secret meetings was to come from Middle Eastern investors in a Liechtenstein fund, in breach of UK election law, and that he was relaxed over foreign donors using deception to conceal the true source of the money.
However the Sunday Times - together with journalists Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake - said it had been “completely vindicated”. In a statement, the newspaper said: “This was an important public interest story. Our journalists acted with professionalism and integrity and with the full support of the newspaper's editors and lawyers.
“They and the newspaper have fought this case for three years. Today's judgment confirms that journalism, and in particular undercover journalism, plays a key role in exposing the conversations behind closed doors, that feed public mistrust. In so doing, it serves a vital purpose in a democracy.”
Calvert and Blake added that the Tugendhat judgement was “ found to contain glaring errors and, in our view, it was astonishingly one-sided.” They urged that Lord Gold’s inquiry into the relationship between the Conservative party and its donors, which was “mothballed”, be re-opened.
Mr Cruddas, who was refused permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, said: “Naturally, I am disappointed that the Court of Appeal has allowed part of the Sunday Times’ appeal, but it is some consolation that I remain the overall winner of my action. The court has said that the newspaper failed `by a wide margin' to justify their suggestion that I was prepared to break UK electoral law by accepting foreign donations.
“What is more, they have confirmed that based on the judge's assessment of the oral evidence which he heard from the Sunday Times journalists, there is no basis for overturning his decision that they were malicious and knew that suggestion to be untrue. This is no victory for the Sunday Times when they still have to pay me damages, and their journalists remain condemned as malicious.”
The newspaper will pay half of Mr Cruddas’ trial costs. As the Sunday Times paid him £180,000 in damages and £500,000 in costs following the trial, Mr Cruddas would now have to make repayments estimated to be more than £300,000, Times Newspapers claimed.
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