The Lincolnshire Echo has issued an unreserved apology and paid a substantial five-figure sum to a former council leader it accused of committing fraud to force through a planning application.
In an article on 1 December 2009 running across pages one and two the newspaper alleged there were ‘solid reasonable grounds’to suspect Bernard Theobald – the former leader of West Lindsey District council and the ex-planning committee chair – had committed fraud to advance a planning application.
Three days later the paper – owned by Lincolnshire Media, a subsidiary of Northcliffe Media – published another story on pages one and two headlined ‘You cannot be serious”, in which it repeated the fraud allegations.
It also accused Theobald of lying when he denied the newspaper’s claim that his planning application had resulted in a council planning officer being suspended and investigated by the Audit Commission.
On 1 January, 2010, the Echo published a third story, this time on page three, headlined: ‘Councillor’s future to be discussed’in which it alleged Theobald had been left ‘disgraced’by his actions.
Versions of all three articles also appeared online at thisislincolnshire.co.uk.
A statement read out at the High Court today said: ‘As the defendant [Lincolnshire Media] accepts, there were never any grounds to suspect Mr Theobald of fraud in relation to his planning application or of having acted in an improper manner in order to advance his planning application.
‘Further, there was no basis whatsoever to state that he was disgraced or to impute that he was lying. There was nothing to justify the allegations as published.
‘The allegations made against Mr Theobald were completely false and should never have been published.”
The court heard that neither the internal district council investigation referred to in the first articles nor the Audit Commission investigation were prompted by Theobald’s planning application.
The suspension of the planning officer was also ‘wholly unrelated’to Theobald because his application had not been made at the time of the officer’s suspension.
Counsel for Lincolnshire Media said: ‘Through me, the defendant apologises fully and unreservedly to Mr Theobald for the serious distress and embarrassment caused as a result of the publication of these false allegations, and welcomes this opportunity to set the record straight.”
In a statement Theobald said: ‘I am delighted to be able to finally set the record straight and to clear my name. The newspaper has accepted that the allegations it published about me were false and should never have been published.
“I have achieved all the objectives I had when I first brought this claim and look forward to putting the whole episode behind me and getting on with my life.”
An apology published by the newspaper last week said: ‘The connection between ‘potential fraud and mismanagement’ and Mr Theobald’s planning application was made in reliance on a press release from the council dated September 24, 2009.
‘The article correctly reported that a planning application submitted by Mr Theobald had been withdrawn by the chief executive of the council.
‘It also correctly reported that a planning officer at the council had been suspended and that an investigation into potential fraud and mismanagement in the planning department of the authority had been undertaken.
‘However, we now accept that the connection between the planning application and the investigation into potential fraud in planning at the council should not have been made.
‘We now know that the planning officer in question was suspended, and that the original investigation commenced, some months before Mr Theobald’s application was even submitted.
‘Our linking of the three events was an error based on the press release of September 24, 2009, which was the first time we became aware of all three events.
‘We apologise unreservedly to Mr Theobald for any distress or embarrassment caused by this error.”