A Daily Mail article about a Metropolitan Police contract with a business which helped then Commissioner Sir Ian Blair sharpen up his image was defamatory, a High Court judge has decided.
The piece appeared in the Daily Mail in October 2008 under the headline: “Met Boss in new ‘Cash for a Friend’ storm”.
It reported that Sir Ian had “employed Andy Miller to advise him on how to ‘make the transition'” when he had taken over as Commissioner three years previously.
It said the “vanity contract”, which was understood to be worth more than £15,000, was agreed although no other company was invited to bid for it.
Miller sued the newspaper’s publisher Associated Newspapers claiming the article was defamatory.
In March last year Mr Justice Eady decided, as a preliminary issue, that the article was capable of bearing a meaning defamatory of Miller.
The case was then moved to Mr Justice Tugendhat to decide whether the words of which Miller complained were capable of bearing a defamatory meaning.
Miller argued that the words complained of meant that by accepting a five-figure sum from public funds at the instigation of Sir Ian in circumstances in which the tendering process was not followed he was “the willing beneficiary of improper conduct and cronyism by a public official”.
Justice Tugendhat said there was nothing wrong with business being conducted between friends, or with people becoming friends with those they met through business, whether they were each dealing as principals on their own behalf, or where one or both of the friends was acting on behalf of a principal, including where the principal was a public authority.
“In my judgment, no reasonable reader would think otherwise,” he said.
The allegation of friendship, together with a business relationship, between Sir Ian and Miller could not by itself reasonably be understood as an allegation of actual guilt of impropriety or cronyism.
He rejected the argument that a reasonable reader would have inferred from the article that Miller must have known about the proper tendering process, and that it was not followed.
But an allegation of friendship in a business context did raise a suspicion that a reasonable person would entertain, he said, adding: “A reasonable reader would be concerned that contracts should be awarded by a public authority only in accordance with the proper procedures.”
The words complained of meant that there were, at the date of publication, reasonable grounds to suspect that in relation to the “vanity contract” Miller was a beneficiary of improper conduct and cronyism on the part of Sir Ian because of his friendship with Sir Ian.
Justice Tugendhat said that what was alleged was a close friendship for 30 years, which included the two men having gone skiing together.
A reasonable reader would infer that there were reasonable grounds to suspect that the two men talked about the business they could and could not to do together, or that Miller made his own inquiries as to what business he could properly expect to do with the Metropolitan Police, “so that, one way or another, he knew that his company was benefiting from a contract which was not awarded in accordance with proper procedures”.
The judge added: “I am not, of course, finding that Sir Ian was guilty of impropriety. I am simply finding what a reasonable reader would understand the words complained of to mean.”
He concluded: “I find that the words complained of meant that there were (at the date of publication) reasonable grounds to suspect that Mr Miller was a willing beneficiary of improper conduct and cronyism because of his friendship with Sir Ian Blair in respect of the award of a number of Metropolitan Police Service contracts to Mr Miller’s company worth millions of pounds of public money, and that that is a meaning defamatory of Mr Miller.”