The Sunday Times filmed Tory co-Treasurer Peter Cruddas admitting that a foreign company could gain access to David Cameron and influence Government policy if it paid the party £250,000 a year.
Today, Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Jackson said the behaviour of Cruddas exposed by The Sunday Times was “unacceptable, inappropriate and wrong”.
So why does the paper still have to pay Cruddas £50,000 (reduced on appeal from the £180,000 payout awarded at the High Court)? Or to put it another way, why does Cruddas only have to pay £150,000 back?
Sunday Times journalists Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert met Cruddas at his office in March 2012 posing as representatives of Global Zenith, a fictional fund management company for foreign investors.
Having viewed the entire transcript and video of the meeting Lord Jackson said it was clear that the first agreed meaning of The Sunday Times articles of 25 March 2012 was proven.
This was that:
in return for cash donations to the Conservative Party, the Claimant corruptly offered for sale the opportunity to influence government policy and gain unfair advantage through secret meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers
This overturns the ruling of Mr Justice Tugendhat and knocks down the major part of the libel.
But he said that The Sunday Times had failed by “a wide margin” to prove the other two defamatory meanings of the articles, that:
The claimant made the offer, even though he knew that the money offered for such secret meetings was to come, in breach of the ban under UK electoral law, from Middle Eastern Investors in a Liechtenstein fund
in order to circumvent and thereby evade the law, the Claimant was happy that the foreign donors should use deceptive devices, such as creating an artificial UK company to donate the money or using UK employees as conduits, so that the true source of the donation would be concealed
It is worth noting that Cruddas resigned on the evening that he became aware The Sunday Times articles were being published.
On the Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech about the incident and said that in future the Conservative Party would publish a register of all donors who attended dinners with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers.
It is clear the journalism of The Sunday Times shone a light into murky goings on between wealthy foreign investors and the funding of our Governing political party.
As the judge said:
Wealthy donors should not be able to tap into confidential Government information or Government thinking. Nor should they be given an opportunity to discuss with the Prime Minister (even in general terms) the appropriate strategy for them to pursue in purchasing Government assets.
Those reading the transcript can see for themselves what Cruddas was up to.
One has to wonder whether the public interest is best served by a judgment which penalises The Sunday Times to the tune of £50,000 and makes it pay a portion of Cruddas' costs when the paper has clearly exposed wrongdoing at the top of our political system.
It is worth reading the transcript of the undercover meeting, reproduced in the judgment, in which Cruddas’ actions and promises are laid bare for all to see. The journalists are referred to as D1 and D2.
D1: I think we need to have some contact with people er at the top of the party, and obviously Sarah’s explained to us that you don’t get a sit down meeting for an hour with David Cameron but there are ways of, of meeting him and becoming sort of a player, erm, in the UK. And so we’d like to have some of that contact, we’d like to have an opportunity to some extent to have our say in policy areas which we feel affect our business, er, in the UK and our investment strategy, and er we’d sort of like to be moving in the kinds of circles where you, you sort of know what’s going on and you pick up the kind of intelligence…
C: Yeah (nodding)
C: We have to be careful. You cannot buy access to the Prime Minister, full stop. If you donate you will be invited to events where the Prime Minister is there, and frequently, if you get into the right club, and I can advise you, you could well be at a private house, having a private dinner, with the Chancellor, William Hague, David Cameron, Michael Gove, all the top ministers…
C:…the Chairman of the party, where around that table there will be very distinguished business people. For example there’s a big commodities erm merger going on at the moment that you may or may not know of, but one of the people involved with that was sitting at the table.
C: I was at the table, big hedge fund guys, ex bankers, current bankers…
C:… the Prime Minister, they’re at the table and we get a chance to ask the Prime Minister questions…
C:… and we can say well what do you think about trade between blah, blah, blah. What do you think we’re going to do about the top rate of tax?
C: And I tell you something, for me, you meet a lot of interesting people,…
C:…a lot of interesting people, and you do get to hear a lot of things.
C: A lot of things that are kind of semi-public.
C: Erm and you know at the last dinner I went to about a month ago and I’ve got one coming up in a couple of weeks, erm, we were talking about Scotland and what effect that, they would have and the Prime Minister said oh well I’m meeting…I said to him, ‘When are you meeting the mad Scotsman?
C: He said ‘I’m meeting the mad Scotsman, er, in about a month’s time’, and I said when, and he said well not…don’t fix the date yet, but February. Lo and behold, at the beginning of February, he met Alex Salmond, I think it was the 10th.
C: (Clears throat) But a couple of days later I went up to a luncheon for the party…
C:… and I was at the luncheon, I said ‘Oh yeah, the Prime Minister told me he’s meeting Alex Salmond in February, so it’s key bits of information that you can use, you know …
C:… when you, you know frequently I say well I was with the Prime Minister last week and he told me this.
D1: Yeah, yeah
C: You know and they said, well does he want to pull out of Scotland, I say, well actually, he told me that he wants to fight to keep the Union and then they said well is that the official line or his true feelings? And I said he told me that was, those were his true feelings, however, even if they’re not, we as a party have to be seen to be fighting to keep the Union together. Even if we don’t agree with it, because at the end of it all, if the Scots say we’re out of here and they want to go independent, we can turn around and say it’s not what we wanted, it’s not what we campaigned for,…
C:… you can’t have this, you can’t have that, and you can get on with it
D1: Yeah, Of course, year.
C: So you do really pick up a lot of information…
C:…, and when you see the Prime Minister, you’re seeing David Cameron, you’re not seeing the Prime Minister, you’re seeing David Cameron.
C: But, within that room everything’s confidential…
C:… and you will be able to ask him practically any question that you want.
D1: Well that’s quite handy.
C: Well you know, what would, what would be the type of thing you would want to ask him for example?
D2: Well, we’re, for example we’re interested in, at the moment our investment strategy in the UK is in its very early stages and we’re just sort of kicking around ideas, but one thing is that we might, say we want, we wanted to take an interest in an asset like the Royal Mail, we’d, we’d like to ask him ‘How do you feel…’
C: Spot on. Spot on.
D1: What the strategy would be..
C: You could ask him about that.
C: You could ask him about that, that would be a very good thing.”
D2: And what do you think I mean if, say, we were to make a commitment er now the- or in a couple of weeks’ time to donate over, say, two years, what do you think, if we really want to get-, get ourselves noticed and get ourselves invited to the very top level so that we would be taken seriously when we meet Mr Cameron at Downton Abbey for example, what do you think is a suitable amount for us to give to-,
C: Minimum of a hundred grand a year, minimum
D2: Hundred grand a year. What do you think, I mean, what’s a kind of-, what-, what would you say was a suitable amount if a hundred grand is a minimum?
C: Hundred grand probably isn’t enough if you really want to be taken seriously. You’ve got to be compliant.
C: Yeah. People tend to up um during the election year, election year 2015, actually, my advice to you is people tend to say, ‘Right, well I’ll give this now and then in the election year-, ‘this guy has offered one million pounds at the election year. But you know what? We get a lot of money in the election year. You kind of do get noticed but you’ll get outbid in the election year,
C:.. you’ll get outbid. So the impact n-, is probably now, we’re mid-term and its harder to get money now, mid-term, so from an impact point of view I think you need to come above the radar now and not necessarily pledge a big pledge for the election year.
C: And a hundred grand is not premier league, it’s not bad, it’s- probably bottom on the premier league. 200 grand, 250 is premier league.
C: But anything between a hundred and two fifty. And what I would suggest is that-, to leave something back for the- the party conference so-
D2: Of course, and things like that.
D1: Well, we have that within our budget, um-
D1: It’s a question of-, I mean, and the question for us really I suppose is we pay-, if we do become premier league what-, what would we get in addition?
C: Well what you would get is um the first thing that you-, when we talk about your donations the first thing we wanna do is get you at the Cameron and Osborne dinners.