Two news reports and a leader article over which a former MP is suing the Sunday Telegraph are all defamatory – but are all also comment, a judge has decided.
Frank Cook, who was Labour MP for Stockton North from 1983 until May 2010, is suing the newspaper’s publisher Telegraph Media Group over three articles that appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 31 May, 2009, and reported that he had tried to reclaim on his Parliamentary expenses a £5 offertory donation made on his behalf by an assistant at a Battle of Britain church service in Stockton.
Cook claimed that the news stories implied that he represented low “value-for-money” as a parliamentarian, and that his claim for the £5 “was particularly embarrassing … having regard to his official support of the campaign to commemorate a Battle of Britain hero”.
He also said the leader implied that he thought it appropriate to claim back from taxpayers the £5 he put in a church collection for an RAF charity, and that he set out to exploit the expenses system for his own gain in disregard of his constituents’ views.
Mr Cook admitted that he made the expenses claim for the £5 but claimed he did so by mistake.
Telegraph Media Group is pleading justification, honest comment, and the Reynolds defence of responsible journalism on a matter of public interest.
Mr Justice Tugendhat’s decision on whether the words complained of were defamatory was made in a judgment handed down on 9 May in advance of the trial – to be held soon – without a jury.
The trial will decide whether a reasonable person could have made the comments made by the newspaper, and whether the newspaper believed that it was inappropriate for Cook to have claimed for the £5.
Mr Justice Tugendhat said: “I accept that if it is clear that the imputation in question is an inference, then it will be a comment, whether or not it is otherwise verifiable. But the fact that an imputation is objectively verifiable is a factor to be taken into consideration in deciding whether the defendant has made clear that it is an inference and so a comment.”
Justice Tugendhat said the first article, which appeared on the front page, bore the meaning Cook claimed – that he was a low value for money Parliamentarian. He also said that this was a defamatory meaning, but that it was a comment and not a statement of fact.
The article did not carry another meaning claimed by Mr Cook – that his support for the Battle of Britain campaign was hypocritical, he added.
Suggesting the article meant that Cook’s support for the campaign was a pretence on his part would be “an unreasonable interpretation of the words”, he said, adding: “What is said to be embarrassing is the revelation that he had not been living up to the principle he had proclaimed, in other words he had demonstrated a weakness in character or judgment (there is no suggestion of dishonesty).
“I hold that to be the meaning and that it is a defamatory meaning. I have already held it to be comment.”
The same applied to the second article, which appeared on page two of the newspaper, he said.
On the question of the leader article, Justice Tugendhat said: “The leader is what it says it is, namely a comment piece. In my judgment it means, first of all, that the writer infers from the fact that Cook made the claim for a refund of the £5 that he thought it was appropriate to do so. That is a defamatory meaning.”
The Leader also meant that at the time when Cook claimed for the £5 he did not believe that he could justify it to the public, which was a defamatory meaning the judge said, adding: “But in my judgment it is also an inference. The reasonable reader would understand it to be a comment and not a statement of fact.”