Former Labour MP wins libel battle against Skwawkbox and union

A former Labour MP who sued a union and the publisher of left-wing news website Skwawkbox for libel has won a High Court fight and been awarded £75,000 damages.

Anna Turley – who lost her seat in Redcar, North Yorkshire, in the General Election on 12 December – had sued Unite and blogger Stephen Walker.

Mr Justice Nicklin, who oversaw a High Court trial in London in November, ruled in her favour today.

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Turley said a 2017 article on Walker’s Skwawkbox blog, which contained a press statement from Unite, libelled her by conveying the meaning that she had acted dishonestly when submitting an application to join the union.

She also says Unite misused her private information.

Unite bosses and Walker fought the case and said Turley had been dishonest and was not fit to be an MP. They said the article was true or justified in the public interest.

Mr Justice Nicklin found Unite and Walker liable and concluded that the Skwawkbox article had caused “serious harm” to Turley’s reputation.

A Unite spokesperson said the union’s bosses were “very disappointed” with the decision.

Lawyers said the union and Walker wanted to appeal.

Turley had wanted more than £100,000. She said in a statement that she was “very pleased” with the verdict, adding: “This issue could have been put to bed two and a half years ago with a simple apology and removal of the libellous article.

“It gave me no pleasure to undertake this action, but the accusations were so serious and damaging to my reputation that I had no choice but to defend myself through the courts.

“Free speech is always important, but politically-motivated libel and publishing untrue allegations as fact simply serve to undermine democracy and further erode faith in elected representatives. I am very pleased that our legal system has provided justice today.

“I hope this verdict will send a message on the importance of journalistic integrity and that while politicians are rightly open to high levels of scrutiny and accountability, they should not be subjected to untrue public statements that can damage their reputation on such serious issues as their honesty and integrity.”

The article related to a Unite membership application Turley made in December 2016.

Mr Justice Nicklin heard how Turley had applied to be a Unite member under a Community membership category.

He was told that Unite’s Community section was aimed at people not in paid employment and cost 50p a week.

A barrister representing Unite said Turley had been willing to “conceal, mislead and deceive”.

Anthony Hudson QC said Turley wanted to vote against Unite general secretary Len McCluskey in an election without being noticed and without the union knowing she was an MP.

Turley said the Skwawkbox article made “false and defamatory” allegations about her and impugned her honesty.

“I had not dishonestly joined the Community section of Unite and there was no reason to suspect me of being dishonest,” she told the judge.

“I believed I was entitled to join it.”

She added: “I am not dishonest and have not lied or sought to mislead. My reputation for honesty and integrity are of the utmost importance to me. They go to the root of who I am and why I am in public service.”

Turley had links to a WhatsApp group of Labour MPs, known as the Birthday Club, who were opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the judge heard.

Hudson said her application flowed from a Birthday Club WhatsApp discussion.

He said the Birthday Club members had come together to oppose Corbyn’s leadership.

Ruth Smeeth, who was then Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, had circulated a link to Birthday Club members about a Unite general secretary election.

Hudson suggested that Turley had been part of an attempt to “oust” McCluskey and that the ultimate aim had been to “oust” Corbyn as Labour leader.

Picture: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Wire

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