Former MP loses libel case

A FORMER MP has lost a libel case against a national newspaper which reported he claimed back £5 expenses for a church donation.

Hartlepool-born former MP Frank Cook, who represented Stockton North, which includes Billingham and Wolviston until last year, failed in a bid to sue the Sunday Telegraph.

Three articles which appeared in the newspaper on May 31, 2009, said Mr Cook had claimed the expenses to cover money put into a collection by an aide representing him at a Battle of Britain memorial service.

Mr Justice Tugendhat had already held at the High Court that the words Mr Cook complained about were honest comment.

Yesterday, he said the 75-year-old ex-MP, who appeared in the Mail in March describing how he was about to start a course of chemotherapy as he fought against lung cancer, had failed in his attempt to defeat the defence by proving malice in that the newspaper or its journalists did not believe their comments were justified.

Mr Cook, who reimbursed the aide, admitted having made the claim for £5, which was disallowed by Parliamentary authorities, but said he did so by mistake.

High Court Judge Mr Justice Tugendhat said the newspaper’s journalists believed Mr Cook thought it appropriate to claim the £5, and did not accept he could have done it by mistake as the claim was in his handwriting, although it might have been an error of judgment.

He said on May 9 he ruled the articles were all comment, rather than statements of fact.

The judge said the statements meant Mr Cook’s claim was particularly embarrassing given his support of the campaign to commemorate a Battle of Britain hero, that Mr Cook thought it appropriate to make a claim for a refund of £5, and that at the time he made the claim he did not believe he could justify it to the public.

He added: “The rules governing the reimbursement of MPs’ expenses were not necessarily rules or standards which the public would accept as proper.

“There is no inconsistency in believing that a claim may be justifiable or appropriate under one set of rules while at the same time believing that it was not justifiable under some other rules or standard.

“What is justifiable legally is not always justifiable morally. 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.”

Mr Justice Tugendhat said the claim must fail, under the defence of fair comment.

Mr Cook lost his seat in last year’s general election after being de-selected by the Labour Party and standing as an independent candidate. The seat was won by Labour’s Alex Cunningham.

Mr Cook said: “Obviously I need to study the details of the judgement and consult my legal advisors before I can comment in detail on Mr Justice Tugenhadt’s findings.”