Tim Yeo v Times Newspapers Ltd

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtQueen's Bench Division
JudgeMr Justice Warby
Judgment Date25 Nov 2015
Neutral Citation[2015] EWHC 3375 (QB)
Docket NumberCase No: HQ14D01146

[2015] EWHC 3375 (QB)

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE

QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION

Royal Courts of Justice

Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Before:

Mr Justice Warby

Case No: HQ14D01146

Between:
Tim Yeo
Claimant
and
Times Newspapers Limited
Defendant

Desmond Browne QC and Victoria Jolliffe (instructed by Carter-Ruck Solicitors) for the Claimant

Gavin Millar QC and Ben Silverstone (instructed by Reynolds Porter Chamberlain) for the Defendant

Hearing dates: 12–16, 19–20 October 2015

Mr Justice Warby

Introduction

1

Tim Yeo was first elected as the MP for South Suffolk in 1983. He remained the MP for that constituency until Parliament was dissolved in 2015 in readiness for the general election, at which he did not stand. For the last five of those 32 years he was Chairman of the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee (ECCSC). In this action Mr Yeo claims that in June 2013, at a time when he held both those offices, he was libelled by the defendant Times Newspapers Ltd (TNL), the publisher of The Sunday Times, in articles prepared by its Insight team and published in hard copy and online.

2

The articles contained defamatory allegations of fact, to the effect that Mr Yeo was prepared and had offered to act in breach of the MPs' Code of Conduct by acting as a paid Parliamentary advocate for a foreign energy company. The articles also contained defamatory expressions of opinion, to the effect that Mr Yeo had acted scandalously and shown willing to abuse his position as an MP. TNL's defence is that its factual allegations were substantially true, and that the opinions expressed were honest comment; and, or in any case, that what it published was responsible journalism in the public interest. The main issue in this trial is whether any of those defences are made out.

An outline

3

The articles complained of were written by Jonathan Calvert, The Sunday Times Insight Editor, and his then deputy, Heidi Blake. They resulted from an undercover investigation proposed and undertaken by those two journalists with the approval of the Managing Editor, Charles Hymas, and the Editor, Martin Ivens.

4

By means of an email of 13 May 2013 (the Set Up Email), and a phone conversation on 14 May 2013 Ms Blake, posing as "Robyn Fox" of a fictitious consultancy firm named "Coulton & Goldie Global" ("CGG"), arranged a lunch meeting with Mr Yeo. The ostensible purpose was to discuss an opportunity for Mr Yeo to provide consultancy for a day or two per month with "an extremely generous remuneration package". The work was to relate to a European launch strategy for a leading edge solar technology developer in the Far East.

5

The lunch meeting ("the Meeting") took place at Nobu restaurant on 21 May 2013. It was attended by Mr Yeo, "Robyn Fox", and Mr Calvert, posing as "James Lloyd" of CGG. The journalists secretly filmed the Meeting, which lasted about 1 hr 20 mins.

6

The following morning "Robyn Fox" emailed Mr Yeo to say that his services were not required ("the Stand Down Email"). In the afternoon he replied, expressing relief, saying it had become "increasingly apparent" during the Meeting that what was wanted from him was lobbying.

7

On the evening of Friday 7 June 2013 Ms Blake and Mr Calvert sent Mr Yeo a letter ("the Front Up Letter"), putting him on notice of an article intended for publication on Sunday 9 June. The letter summarised what was said to be the thrust of the intended article. It was made clear that the article was to be based on what had been said at the Meeting on 21 May, aspects of which were summarised. The letter posed four questions and asked for comment by 4pm on Saturday 8 June.

8

Mr Yeo instructed solicitors, Carter-Ruck. Just after 4pm on 8 June they sent TNL a letter ("the Pre-Publication Letter"), rebutting what had been said about the facts in the Front Up Letter. Carter-Ruck's letter said that Mr Yeo would take whatever action was necessary to defend his reputation, including legal action, if The Sunday Times published an allegation to the effect that he had "offered or was willing to act in breach of the MPs' Code of Conduct".

9

Publication went ahead in The Sunday Times on 9 June 2013. The story was the front page lead, running over to page 2 ("the Front Page Article"). This article was headed "Top Tory in new Lobbygate row", and carried the sub-headline: "MP coached client before committee grilling." There was a separate article over two inside pages ("the Inside Article") under the headline "'I told him in advance what to say. Ha-ha'". The articles were largely but not exclusively based on what had passed between the journalists and Mr Yeo, and in particular on what Mr Yeo had said, at the Meeting.

10

Shortly after the publication of the 9 June articles Mr Yeo referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The Commissioner undertook an investigation and reported to the House of Commons Committee on Standards ("the Standards Committee") by way of a Memorandum dated 14 November 2013.

11

In the meantime, on 23 June 2013 TNL published the second article complained of ("the 23 June Article"), on the front page and page 2 of the paper was headed "Lobbyist 'wrote peer's speech'". The 23 June Article did not name Mr Yeo, but his case is that a reference in its eighth paragraph it to a Select Committee Chairman who was being investigated by the Parliamentary authorities will have been understood as a reference to him.

12

On 19 November 2013 the Standards Committee published a report concerning the allegations about Mr Yeo ("the Standards Report"). On 13 December 2013 Mr Yeo's solicitors wrote a letter of claim to the defendant. Following a negative response on 31 January 2014, this action was started by a claim form issued on 19 March 2014. In its Defence TNL disputed Mr Yeo's case about the meaning of the articles complained of, and pleaded the three defences to which I have referred above.

13

On 20 August 2014 I determined as preliminary issues in the action what defamatory meanings, or imputations, were conveyed by the articles complained of, and whether these were imputations of fact, or comment. I held that the 9 June articles contained a defamatory factual imputation and a defamatory comment, and I found a defamatory factual imputation in the 23 June Article: see [2014] EWHC 2853 (QB) [121]-[122], [136] and [138] I held that the online versions of the articles, though they differed in some respects, bore the same meanings as the print versions: [126], [139]. Mr Yeo then amended his claim to complain of the meanings I had identified, and TNL amended its Defence to plead justification, honest comment and Reynolds privilege in respect of those meanings.

14

Given that their meanings have been determined, it is not necessary to set out the full text of the articles complained of in this judgment, though I shall refer to some passages. The full text of the Front Page and Inside Articles can be found at paragraphs [99]-[101] of my August 2014 judgment. The eight paragraphs of the 23 June Article of which Mr Yeo complains are set out in paragraph [128] of that judgment.

The issues on liability

15

The claim in respect of the articles of 9 June 2013 gives rise to three issues:—

(1) Whether the defamatory factual imputation that I identified in my August 2014 judgment is justified, that is to say, true.

(2) Whether the defamatory comment I identified in that judgment is honest comment.

(3) Whether the defamatory information complained of is protected by Reynolds privilege.

16

The defamatory factual imputation I found was conveyed by these articles is that:

Mr Yeo was prepared to act, and had offered himself as willing to act in a way that was in breach of the Code of Conduct of the House of Commons (the Code) by acting as a paid Parliamentary advocate who would:

a) push for new laws to benefit the business of a client for a fee of £7,000 a day; and

b) approach Ministers, civil servants and other MPs to promote a client's private agenda in return for cash.

17

The burden of proving justification lies on TNL. The defence requires proof that the defamatory sting of the imputation is substantially true. Whether that is so in this case turns principally on three matters: the relevant requirements of the Code of Conduct, the court's assessment of Mr Yeo's words and actions at the Meeting, and its assessment of his state of mind at the time.

18

The defamatory comment or opinion that I found was conveyed by the 9 June articles is that:

by behaving in the manner referred to in the articles Mr Yeo had acted scandalously, and shown willing to abuse his position in Parliament to further his own financial and business interests in preference to the public interest.

19

The defence of honest comment has five requirements: the statement must (1) be on a matter of public interest; (2) be recognisable as comment, as distinct from an imputation of fact; (3) be based on facts which are true or protected by privilege; (4) explicitly or implicitly indicate those facts, at least in general terms; (5) be a comment which could have been made by an honest person: Tse Wai Chun v Cheng [2001] EMLR 777 [16]-[21] (Lord Nicholls) as endorsed with one modification in Joseph v Spiller [2010] UKSC 53, [2011] 1 AC 852 [105] (Lord Phillips).

20

It is conceded that the first of the five requirements is met, as the articles concerned the behaviour of Mr Yeo in his capacity as an MP and Select Committee Chair. My decision on meaning is a finding that requirement (2) is satisfied. As the comment I have found is in terms a comment about the behaviour referred to in the articles there can be...

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