Former Tory MP Tim Yeo must pay Sunday Times £411,000 after losing libel bid over lobbying sting

Former Tory MP Tim Yeo has lost his High Court libel action over a "cash for advocacy" claim in The Sunday Times which he said "trashed" his reputation.

He has now agreed to pay the paper £411,000 towards its costs within 28 days, with further costs to be assessed.

Yeo sued over articles published in The Sunday Times on 9 and 23 June 2013.

The reports were prompted by an undercover investigation in which Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, the newspaper's Insight Team, met Yeo for lunch at Nobu restaurant posing as representatives of a Far East solar energy company.

In a pre-trial judgment dealing with preliminary issues Mr Justice Warby said the articles alleged Yeo was “prepared to and had offered to act in a way that was in breach of the Code of Conduct of the House of Commons, by acting as a paid Parliamentary advocate”.

He said that the 9 June article also contained comment to the effect that Yeo “had behaved scandalously, and shown willing to abuse his position in Parliament to further his own financial and business interests in preference to the public interest”.

The Sunday Times argued that the story was true, that the comment was fair and alternatively that each article represented “responsible journalism on matters of public interest”.

Yeo is also sued over an article on 23 June which stated: "Three lords and a select committee chairman are being investigated by the parliamentary authorities after The Sunday Times revealed that they were selling themselves as parliamentary advocates for paying clients."

The Sunday Times argued that Yeo was not identified in this piece, but Yeo’s lawyers contended that readers of the earlier piece would believe this statement referred to him.

Yeo stood down as an MP at last election after being deselected by his constituency party in Suffolk.

He stood aside temporarily from his role as chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Committee but was cleared of breaking Commons rules on lobbying.

At the week-long trial last month, Desmond Browne QC said that Yeo, who represented South Suffolk for more than 30 years until the last election and was chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, was quite unjustifiably tarred with the same brush as another MP who had been exposed a week before.

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

"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".

"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."

Gavin Millar QC, for Times Newspapers, said that the publication 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.

"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."

He said that the words and conduct of Yeo at, immediately before and after, the meeting "amply" justified the truth of the allegation and, on any view – taken together with the admitted facts relating to his parliamentary and business activities – supported the comment meaning.

Martin Ivens, editor of The Sunday Times, said: "This is a victory for investigative journalism. It vindicates the role of the press in exposing the clandestine advocacy by MPs for undisclosed interests."

He added: "The Sunday Times' Insight team has a long history of reporting on the conduct of politicians and is proud to have forced reform of standards in public life.

"This case has emphasised the essential role of newspapers in disclosing wrongdoing. It is good to see the courts recognise that journalism carried out in good faith is vital to a healthy democracy."

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