Case Preview: Yeo v Times Newspapers, Trial of former MP’s libel claim against Sunday Times begins on 12 October 2015

11 10 2015

YeoThe trial of the case of Yeo v Times Newspapers begins before Mr Justice Warby tomorrow, 12 October 2015.  It is listed for 7 days.  As appears from our review of the 2014-2015 legal year, this is the first libel trial in a case involving in the media this calendar year.

The case concerns articles published in the Sunday Times on 9 and 23 June 2013 concerning Mr Tim Yeo, the then MP for South Suffolk.  The first, front page, article on 9 June was headlined “Top Tory in new Lobbygate row” [£] and there was a sub-headline: “MP coached client before committee grilling” (“the Front Page Article”).  There was an article on pages 6 and 7 headlined “I told him in advance what to say. Ha-ha” (“the Inside Article”).

The articles were written by Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert – who were also the individual defendants in the libel action brought by Peter Cruddas (see the judgment in the appeal, Cruddas v Calvert [2015] EWCA 171).

The article published on 23 June 2013 [£] did not refer to the claimant by name but it contained a paragraph referring to an investigation by the parliamentary authorities of “three lords and a select committee chairman … after The Sunday Times revealed that they were selling themselves as parliamentary advocates for paying clients“.  The claimant contended that those who had read the earlier articles would have understood this as a reference to him.

The Times, unusually for a defendant, applied for trial by jury.  This application was rejected by Mr Justice Warby in a judgment handed down on 20 August 2014 ([2014] EWHC 2853 (QB)).  We had posts about this decision at the time – here and here.

In the same judgment, the judge determined the meaning which was borne by the Front Page and Inside Articles as being the defamatory meaning that that the claimant

(1)  was prepared to act, and had offered himself as willing 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 who would:

a. push for new laws to benefit the business of a client for a fee of £7,000 a day; and

b. approach Ministers, civil servants and other MPs to promote a client’s private agenda in return for cash;

(2)  by behaving in the manner referred to in the articles had acted 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 first of these was factual and the second was comment (see [121] and [122]).

Mr Justice Warby went on to hold that the 23 June Article conveyed the factual defamatory meaning that

“Mr Yeo had been selling himself as a Parliamentary advocate for paying clients and had thereby offered to act in a way that was in breach of the rules of the House of Commons”. [138]

The defendant relies on three defences:

(1)  Justification (truth): in relation to the defamatory factual meaning of the articles.  It will seek to prove that the claimant had been selling himself as a parliamentary advocate in breach of the rules

(2)  Fair Comment:  in relation to the comment in the 9 June articles. It will argue that the comment sets out a view held by the journalists based on a sufficient factual foundation.

(3)   Reynolds qualified privilege: in relation to all three articles.  It will seek to show that the subject matter of the article was in the public interest and that the jourrnalists acted responsibly.

The claimant’s plea of “malice” in relation to fair comment was struck out on 4 February 2015 ([2015] EWHC 209 (QB)).

A Pre-Trial Review took place on 16 July 2015 and a judgment was subsequently given ([2015] EWHC 2132 (QB)) dealing with issues of the application of Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689 and certain issues concerning costs budgeting.  In addition, the defendant’s application for summary judgment on the 23 June Article was refused.

The claimant is represented by Desmond Browne QC and Victoria Jolliffe, instructed by Carter-Ruck.  The defendant is represented by Gavin Millar QC and Ben Silverstone, instructed by RPC.

Because the articles were published before 1 January 2014, the case is being tried under the common law, rather than the law in the Defamation Act 2013.  It seems likely that this will be the last media libel trial which deals with the defences of justification, fair comment and Reynolds privilege at common law.


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