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Meaning. Yeo MP v Times Newspapers Ltd [2014]

August 26, 2014

Yeo MP v Times Newspapers Ltd [2014] EWHC 2853 (QB). Tim Yeo is a senior MP in the Conservative party and has represented his constituency of South Suffolk since 1983. On the 21st May 2013 two Sunday Times investigative journalists arranged to meet Mr Yeo for lunch posing as agents for a solar technology company working on projects in the Far East. They wanted to discuss with him a lucrative proposal for consultancy work for their fictitious company and unbeknown to him the lunch was being filmed.

In the subsequent newspaper articles following the lunch, the first, 9th June 2013, appeared on the front page going on to page 2 and headed”Top Tory in new Lobbygate row” followed by “MP coached client before committee grilling”.

The second article also dated 9th June 2013 headlined on the inside pages 6 & 7

“I told him in advance what to say. Ha-ha” followed by “The chairman of a Commons committee has boasted of how he can promote businesses in which he has an interest”.

Another article on the 23rd June 2013 was 5 paragraphs on the front page and 21 on page 2 with the headline “Lobbyist ‘wrote peer’s speech'”.

It did not mention Mr Yeo by name but one of the paragraphs referred 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”.

Mr Yeo in his claim asserts that both the front page and inside page articles, which it was agreed by both sides should be read together, included defamatory factual meanings, in effect saying that he had breached the House of Commons rules in that he was “prepared to act, and had offered himself as willing to act, as a paid Parliamentary advocate”. Mr Justice Warby referred to this as being known as a “Chase Level 1” meaning, that is, he is guilty of wrongdoing, whereas a Level 2 meaning would be that there are reasonable grounds to suspect him of wrongdoing and a Level 3 meaning that there are reasonable grounds to investigate whether he has been involved in wrongdoing.

The publishers of the newspapers, Times Newspapers Limited, denied both articles were defamatory of the MP and pleaded, in the alternative, the defences of justification, fair comment and Reynolds privilege. They also wanted the proceedings to be held before a jury, which application had been supported by the witness statement of the Sunday Times editor, Martin Ivens. Mr Yeo argued against this saying that the proceedings should be before a Judge only and at the same time he applied, in case the application for trial by jury was dismissed by the Judge, for the Court to establish what the defamatory meanings were of the words complained of.

Justice Warby decided not to order jury trial, he said those factors supporting trial by Judge alone outweigh those which support trial by jury. He believed a trial without jury would make the case proportionate, making it easier to deal with any case management and other important issues in the case so that a full and reasoned judgment could be given by him. Further, trial with jury would increase costs and lengthen the time taken to hear the case.

Without a jury it would be much easier for Justice Warby to deliver rulings on the aspects of the case much earlier with the added consideration of saving costs and ensuring the case is dealt with as quickly as possible.

He found that the June 9th article in the newspaper held two defamatory meanings.

  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.Element (1) is factual. Element (2) consists entirely of comment.

Mr Justice Warby said that any amendments to the online articles would not detract from the meaning of which the readers would have given them.

With regard to the article on the 23rd June, this would remind the readers of the article of the 9th June and the near identical defamatory factual meaning to that article of the 9th June in that Mr Yeo had been selling himself to paying clients as a Parliamentary advocate, which act was in breach of the House of Commons rules.

Mr Justice Warby granted an application for relief from sanctions to Mr Yeo, who is on a conditional fee agreement (CFA), due to the oversight by his Solicitors to give the Court and others, particular information regarding the funding arrangements in the manner and time given.

Times Newspapers Limited did not object to the application for relief from sanctions on condition Mr Yeo paid any costs incurred by them.