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06.01.2016

United Kingdom: Member of Parliament loses libel action against Sunday times

Tobias Raab

With decision of 25 November 2015, the High Court of England dismissed an action by Tim Yeo, former Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, against Times Newspapers (Case HQ14D01146).

Yeo based his claim on several articles which had been published by the Sunday Times in the summer of 2013. The publication of the articles followed an undercover investigation by the Times' 'Insight' team. Two journalists of the Sunday Times had met with Yeo, pretending to be members of a fictitious consultancy firm who wanted to employ him on behalf of a leading solar technology developer in the Far East. They offered Yeo £ 7,000 daily to approach Ministers, civil servants and other Members of Parliament to promote their client’s private agenda. Yeo indicated to be ready to act in their client’s interest. After the articles about that meeting had been published, Yeo brought a libel action against the Times Newspaper for the publication of the articles, claiming that they contained defamatory statements. The Sunday Times raised the defences of truth, honest comment and Reynolds privilege (which allows the publication of defamatory statements as long as the publication is in the public interest).

 

At a pre-trial hearing in the summer of 2014, the Court held that the claimant willingly wanted to act in breach of the Code of Conduct of the House of Commons by offering to push for new laws to benefit a private business for a fee of £ 7,000 daily. The Court also stated that he had been acting scandalously, and shown willing to abuse his position in Parliament to further his own financial and business interests in preference to the public interest.

 

The Court dismissed the claim, as in its opinion all of the pleaded defences justified the publication of the articles. It stated that Yeo went to the meeting knowing that its purpose was to discuss paid consultancy for a private client and that he expressed a willingness to undertake Parliamentary advocacy on behalf of that private client. While the Court judged the claimant's evidence in parts to be "utterly implausible", it made clear that the journalists' evidence had been "clear and cogent". Even though Yeo had explained that he had forgotten that a generous honorarium had been discussed at the meeting, the Judge found this description to be not credible and therefore in his judgement untrue. Neither did the Court follow other parts of the claimant's evidence as it found them to be "close to absurd", "false" and "dishonest". The Judge even went as far as comparing Yeo's behaviour from when he became aware that the undercover journalists were offering him money to act as one of their lobbyists with the behaviour of a fish which wriggles on a hook. "It [the hook] goes deeper into the mouth and guarantees that the fish will not escape. So with Mr Yeo's evidence on this issue".

 

Considering the Reynolds defence, the Court stated that there would have only been place for criticising journalistic conduct if there would have been such an accumulation of reasonable points that they could be said, in the mass, to support an allegation of systematic bias or unfairness. Even though the journalists had to approach the claimant’s statements in a fair-minded way, they did not have any duty to search for alternative interpretations, if these would have had to be far-fetched or improbable.

 

The Court also explained that the publisher of the Newspaper had sent a letter to Yeo only two days before the articles were being published, to give him a reasonable chance to comment. The publisher did not inform Yeo sooner, because he did not want to give him the possibility to leak parts of the story. The Court considered the timeframe of two days as sufficient, since the publisher had a legitimate interest in avoiding any spoiling tactics from Yeo on the story. The judge explained that those risks are very high in the present case since the story is objectively sensational and the subject is an experienced Member of Parliament, knowing how to influence the news. By avoiding any leaking and spoiling of the story, the publisher tried made sure that the story would not attract less attention when being published and there would not be any waste of the Newspaper’s resources.

 

The Court also stated that it had not been irresponsible, that the publisher did not provide a full transcript of the underlying evidence in the published article, as it had to be considered that this would have caused the risk of cherry picking, misinterpretation and taking statements out of context. The Judge also decided that there had been no duty for the journalists to publish a full transcript of the meeting as it is their job to distil the essentials. Their task of reflecting all of the evidence did not mean they had to publish all of it. The Court explained that it rather meant, that the journalists had to present a fair conclusion to the reader by summarising and selecting, as long as they did not misinterpret the events or presented them in a completely unbalanced way.

 

The Court also found that Article 8 was not engaged, as the report had exclusively been related to the claimant’s conduct as a serving Member of Parliament and Committee chair instead of his private life. Therefore, also his personal integrity had not been undermined.

Tobias Raab is freelancer at the Institute of European Media Law (EMR), Saarbrücken/Brussels.


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The decision of the High Court can be found here



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