Blackshaw v Lord
|England & Wales
|LORD JUSTICE STEPHENSON,LORD JUSTICE DUNN,LORD JUSTICE FOX
|17 February 1983
|Judgment citation (vLex)
| EWCA Civ J0217-1
|Court of Appeal (Civil Division)
|17 February 1983
 EWCA Civ J0217-1
Lord Justice Stephenson
Lord Justice Dunn
Lord Justice Fox
1979 B No. 5225
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF JUDICATURE
COURT OF APPEAL (CIVIL DIVISION)
ON APPEAL FROM THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION
(MR. JUSTICE CAULFIELD)
Royal Courts of Justice
MR. P. BOWSHER QC and MR. J. PRICE (instructed by Messrs. Simmons & Simmons, Solicitors, London EC2M 2RJ) appeared on behalf of the Defendants (Appellants)
MR. D. EADY (instructed by Messrs. Trower, Still & Keeling, Solicitors, London WC2A 3RP) appeared on behalf of the Plaintiff (Respondent)
This is an appeal by the defendants. The Daily Telegraph Limited and their Economics Correspondent, Mr. Lord, against a verdict of a jury and judgment entered thereon by Mr. Justice Caulfield on 26th February 1981 for £45,000 damages for a libel on the plaintiff, Mr. Blackshaw.
The libel complained of is contained in the heading and the first four paragraphs of an article written by Mr. Lord, the first defendant, and published by the 2nd defendant in the first edition of the "Daily Telegraph" for 13th September 1979. The whole article reads thus:
"'INCOMPETENCE' AT MINISTRY COST £52M by Rodney Lord, Economics Correspondent
"A Government Department has paid North Sea oil companies £52 million in grants which they should not have received. The money is unlikely to be repaid.
"Investigations by the Exchequer and Audit Department and the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons have led to a number of senior civil servants being reprimanded.
"Mr. Alan Blackshaw, the official in charge of Offshore Supplies Office when the payments were being made, resigned from the civil service last month.
"Mr. Joel Barnett, Labour M.P. for Heywood and Royston and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee yesterday described the events as 'a story of inefficiency, incompetence, inadequate staff and inadequate supervision'.
"But he emphasised that there had been no fraud.
"In so far unpublished evidence to the Committee Sir Jack Rampton, Permanent Secretary of the Energy Department, admitted that there had been 'a number of irregularities'.
"He added 'by that I mean on the one hand mistakes and, on the other, decisions to depart from the guidelines which were agreed with the Treasury and published for the benefit of industry without the necessary consultation' within the Department or with the Treasury as was necessary in certain cases.
"'That is a fact and I'm not attempting to argue with that at all'.
"The money paid consisted of grants, under a scheme to provide interest relief on goods and services supplied for North Sea operations by British companies. Under the scheme introduced in 1973, companies are entitled to grants of 3 per cent a year on 80 per cent, of the value of qualifying contracts.
"Until last November there was a time limit of three months to apply for interest rate relief. But relief was paid on applications which fell outside the about a third of the total relief period.
"The £52 million constitutes of £150–160 million.
"The scheme is to be terminated at the end of this present financial year.
"Sir Jack in his evidence said that an under secretary and a number of assistant secretaries had been reprimanded. Their promotion prospects are understood to have been affected".
The plaintiff does not complain of the last paragraph or of anything but the first four paragraphs. They are alleged to mean "that by reason of the plaintiff's incompetence and inefficiency as the official in charge of the Offshore Supplies Office £5 2 million of public money had been lost or improperly paid and in consequence the plaintiff had been reprimanded and compelled to resign from the civil service".
The defendants denied that those paragraphs were defamatory, and alternatively alleged that they were privileged in as many as three different ways. The jury found in answer to the first question put to them by the judge that the words complained of were defamatory of the plaintiff and from that finding there is no appeal. The second question they were asked was: "Are the words complained of in the context of the Daily Telegraph article as a whole a fair and accurate report or summary of what was said by Mr. Martyn Smith, the Department of Energy Press Officer, to Mr. Rodney Lord, the Daily Telegraph journalist?" They answered that "No", and in answer to the third question. "What sum do you all propose as damages?" they gave the answer: "£45,000".
The second question follows a ruling of the learned judge which is the subject of criticism by the plaintiff in a respondent's notice contending that the verdict and judgment should be affirmed on additional grounds. The defendants contend that the judge should not have left the question to the jury and the jury should not have answered it as they did. The judge should have entered judgment for the defendants because after his ruling on qualified privilege there was, in the absence of any plea of malice, no issue to go to the jury. To explain the rulings and the contentions of the parties on the issues of privilege to which the unusual facts of the case gave rise, it is necessary to state those facts in some detail.
The plaintiff had a distinguished scholastic career and distinguished service in the Royal Marines before he entered the Home Civil Service in 1956, in which he served until 10th August 1979. During those years he wrote and published a standard handbook on mountaineering and worked at another on ski-ing, two activities in which he is a recognized expert. In 1974 he was promoted at the early age of 41 to the rank of Under-Secretary in the newly created Department of Energy and was posted to Glasgow as Deputy Director General of the Offshore Supplies Office set up there when that office was moved from London. In 1977 he succeeded another Under Secretary as Director General and occupied that responsible position until November 1978, when he was transferred to London to be Head of the Coal Division in the Department of Energy. But he found living in Scotland and working in London expensive and tiring; he wanted to devote more time to complete his book on ski-ing and other works. So he resigned, as has been said, in August 1979 for a career as business consultant and author, and was presented with a silver tankard on behalf of the Department by the Permanent Under Secretary of State for the Department, Sir Jack Rampton, to whom he had given notice of his resignation a month earlier.
The Offshore Supplies Office had the task of assisting British Industry in developing oil and gas resources in the North Sea. To that end the Department of Energy arranged a scheme for granting interest relief. I take this account of it from the opening paragraphs of the Third Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, Session 1979–80, ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 26th November 1979:
"1. In 1973 the Treasury approved arrangements made by the Department of Energy for giving financial assistance under section 8 of the Industry Act 1972 in the form of interest relief grants to reduce the cost to companies developing oil and gas resources on the UK continental shelf of credit obtained to finance the supply of United Kingdom goods and services. These supplies do not qualify for Export Credits Guarantee Department assistance and the interest relief grant scheme was intended to compensate in some measure for the preferential export credit rates available to overseas suppliers. Under the arrangements the Department pay grants at three per cent per annum on not more than 80 per cent of the value of qualifying contracts for fixed offshore installations, equipment, goods or services of not less than £100,000. Applicants must have obtained credit to finance their contracts through specified banks and the Department issue the grants as periodic payments for up to eight years, allowing three years for drawing loans and five years for their repayment. Applicants are subject to corporation tax on the grants they receive.
"2. In 1974 the Department issued a Guide for Industry setting out the detailed rules and procedures approved by the Treasury for submission of claims and calculation of grants. The Guide formed the written operating instructions which staff in the Department's Offshore Supplies Office were required to follow when considering applications for grants under the interest relief grants scheme. It provided for the initial application to cover a period not exceeding 12 months, and subsequent applications periods of 6 or 12 months, and allowed three months from the end of each period for the submission of claims".
The Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. Joel Barnett, MP, heard evidence in public on 23rd July 1979 and again on 31st October 1979. Paragraph 3 of the Report shows that the committee was investigating after a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
That paragraph reads:
"A test examination by the C & AG's staff of claims and supporting documents relating to grants paid up to June 1978 showed that a number of payments had been approved which differed from those allowable on a strict interpretation of the Guide. The Department accepted that there had been six cases involving the rules for reckoning the amount of borrowing qualifying for grant and resulting in overpayments totalling £1,912,000, a further six cases where grants totalling £640,000 had been paid in respect of claims rendered after expiry of the three months...
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