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  1. Media Law
October 13, 2015

Court told Sunday Times ‘trashed’ reputation of Tory MP Tim Yeo with ‘untrue’ lobbying sting allegations

By William Turvill and Press Association

The Sunday Times "trashed" the reputation of former Conservative MP Tim Yeo in the last stages of his career, the High Court has been told.

Yeo, 70, is suing the newspaper for defamation over three June 2013 stories written after he met with two undercover journalists posing as representatives of a solar energy concern in the Far East.

At an earlier hearing, Mr Justice Warby held that the articles meant Yeo was prepared, and had offered, to act in breach of the Commons code of conduct by acting as a paid parliamentary advocate.

He ruled that the stories meant Yeo would push for new laws to benefit the business of a client for a daily fee of £7,000 and approach ministers, civil servants and other MPs to promote a client's private agenda in return for cash.

They also contained comment to the effect that he had shown willing to abuse his position to further his own financial and business interests.

Times Newspapers Limited, represented by Gavin Millar QC in court, said the claims  – reported by the Insight team after a lunch at Nobu restaurant – were true, fair comment and the result of responsible journalism on matters of public interest.

Desmond Browne QC, for Yeo, yesterday told Mr Justice Warby, who is hearing the seven-day case in London without a jury, that no one could doubt that the propriety of MPs was a matter of legitimate public interest – but that that did not mean it was "open season" for the media in relation to all parliamentarians.

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Yeo, who represented South Suffolk for more than 30 years until the last election and was chair of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, was quite unjustifiably tarred with the same brush as another MP who had been exposed a week before, he went on.

The Sunday Times acted in numerous respects "with a singular lack of responsibility both at the journalistic and the editorial level", Browne said.

"Mr Yeo was the unfortunate victim of that irresponsibility. He says that in his last years of service as an MP, his reputation was trashed."

The distress caused was enormous and he was "horrified, scared for his future and worried about his parliamentary career".

Understandably, added Browne, Yeo was also angry as he knew he had done nothing to break the rules.

He asked the judge to award substantial compensation, which would provide public vindication, adding: "Although the articles in this case did not allege criminality, the allegations go right to the heart of Tim Yeo's integrity as an MP, casting a shadow over his entire career."

Yeo was the subject of subterfuge and covert filming and thought he was meeting consultants whose technology might be useful to Britain and beneficial to the environment.

"At no stage during the lunch when he spoke about ways in which he might be able to assist the journalists, did Tim Yeo understand that what he was being asked to do was act as a paid advocate in breach of the rules," Browne said.

"Nor did he offer himself as willing so to act. Nor, crucially, was he prepared to do so."

Yeo's answer to each defence was premised on one simple point – "what TNL asserts happened is substantially untrue".

"If they were acting responsibly, the journalists, having been present at the lunch and having heard what Tim Yeo said, would surely have known that it was untrue that he was prepared to act, and had offered himself as willing to act in breach of the Commons code of conduct by acting as a paid parliamentary advocate – in contrast to merely being a consultant or adviser," Browne said.

The journalists had a transcript of the conversation to check before publication so, if they were acting responsibly, they would have known perfectly well that Mr Yeo had not shown any such willingness, he went on.

The readers did not have the transcript, so it was all the more incumbent on the journalists that they should present what was said fairly and accurately.

"Presenting such a false and tendentious account of what had been said was the height of irresponsibility and rode roughshod over Tim Yeo's rights to his personal and professional reputation," Browne said.

Gavin Millar QC, for Times Newspapers, which publishes The Sunday Times, told the judge that the publication – which involved subject-matter of obvious and significant public interest – complied with the standards of responsible journalism.

"No issue of source reliability or verification of the facts arose because the articles concerned the claimant's recorded words and conduct in the presence of the journalists, in addition to matters of public record," he told the judge.

"The day after the lunch the claimant, a very experienced parliamentarian, admitted that he had been aware at the meeting that it was being proposed that he undertake lobbying activities which were incompatible with his public office.

"Prior to publication, the defendant notified the claimant of the thrust of the allegations which it intended to publish, and sought his comment. The claimant's response was then reported in the articles."

In support of its defence of justification, the newspaper relied primarily on the words and conduct of Yeo at, and immediately before and after, the meeting.

"These amply justify the truth of the allegation that the claimant was prepared, and had offered himself as willing, to act in a manner that was in breach of the code of conduct in the ways identified."

On any view, Yeo's words and conduct at the meeting – taken together with the admitted facts relating to his parliamentary and business activities – supported the comment meaning, Millar said, adding: "It is fanciful to suggest that, based on those facts, an honest person could not have held the view expressed in the comment."

The hearing was adjourned to today.

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