Telegraph wins libel battle over MP expenses story

Former Labour MP Frank Cook today lost his libel case against the Sunday Telegraph over its reports that he claimed £5 on his Parliamentary expenses to cover money put into a collection at a Battle of Britain commemorative service by an aide.

Mr Justice Tugendhat, who had already held at the High Court that the words Cook complained about were honest comment, said in a decision today that Cook had failed in his attempt to prove the newspaper or its journalists had acted with malice.

Cook, MP for Stockton North from 1983 until May last year, sued over three articles, including a leader, that appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 31 May 2009.

After the judgment Sunday Telegraph editor Ian MacGregor said: ‘This has been an important case for press freedom and I am delighted that The Sunday Telegraph has been fully vindicated.

“Of all the MPs who featured in the Telegraph’s 2009 MPs’ Expenses investigation, Frank Cook was the only one to bring a libel action.

“As part of his case he attacked the honesty and credibility of our senior reporter, Patrick Sawer, and leader writer, Alasdair Palmer.

“Mr Justice Tugendhat remarked that despite the ‘thorough and skilful’ cross-examination to which our journalists were subjected neither had been shaken.

‘This judgment shows again the quality of the work our journalists do, often in challenging circumstances, and underlines the legitimacy of the investigation as a matter of enormous public interest.”

The Telegraph articles reported on Cook’s Parliamentary expenses claims, including one for reimbursement of the donation made by an aide representing him at the Battle of Britain service.

Cook admitted claiming the £5 on expenses but said he had done so by mistake.

Justice Tugendhat said that on 9 May he had ruled that the articles Cook complained about were all comment rather than statements of fact.

He said there were two issues: whether an honest person could express the comments on the basis of the admitted facts, and Cook’s allegation of malice.

He accepted the submission by David Price QC, for the newspaper, that an honest person could believe that Cook had thought it appropriate to make the claim while at the same time not believing that he could justify it to the public, if the public were to find out about it.

“The rules governing the reimbursement of MP’s expenses were not necessarily rules or standards which the public would accept as proper,” added Justice Tugendhat.

“In my judgment it is quite plain that each of the three comments is one which could have been made by an honest person, and which is germane to the subject matter criticised.”

The only way a claimant could defeat an honest comment defence was by proving that the publication was malicious in the sense that the defendant did not believe that the comment was justified, said the judge, adding: “This is the same as an allegation of dishonesty.”

Cook had failed to establish that the journalists lacked belief in the comments made, Justice Tugendhat said, adding: “For these reasons this whole claim must fail. Since the plea of malice fails, the defence of fair comment succeeds.

‘There is no need to consider the other defences that are pleaded. The decision on this preliminary issue is all that need be decided.”

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