The silent victim of The Sunday Times’s “cash for access exposé”

The Sunday Times’s “cash for access exposé” of March last year has had distressing repercussions for two individuals.

The first is Peter Cruddas, the Conservative Party Treasurer, who was forced to resign his position within hours of the first edition of the newspaper hitting the streets.

Mr Cruddas, however, enjoyed his day of reckoning earlier this week when he was awarded damages of £180,000, plus massive costs, after he won his defamation and malicious falsehood claims against the newspaper. Today The Sunday Times was refused permission to appeal on the grounds it had no real prospects of success as the issues are essentially ones of fact.

Mr Cruddas, a self-made businessman, was robust and wealthy enough to look after himself in his legal action against the paper even if, as he said after the hearing, it left a “dark cloud” over him and his family for 16 months.

The second victim of the newspaper’s “scoop” is far less robust and less wealthy – meaning that she has had to suffer in silence as her career was destroyed. She is, if you like, the collateral damage from this sorry affair.

Sarah Southern has always maintained a dignified public silence over the events of early last year but, with her permission, I am able to tell her side of events for the first time.

For those not familiar with the story, Miss Southern was the political consultant who – after falling for a newspaper sting – introduced two undercover journalists to Mr Cruddas, thereby inadvertently bringing about his downfall, as well as her own.

There are those who will think that Miss Southern was, at best, naïve and, at worst, downright foolish, to be duped by The Sunday Times, especially as it came only weeks after a similar publicised sting on a leading public relations firm. However, in Miss Southern’s defence, the undercover operation targeting her was far more sophisticated, lengthy and costly.

So has the penalty – her private and professional life being thrown into turmoil – met with the (non-existent) “crime”? I would strongly suggest not, particularly as it is now abundantly clear that neither she, nor Mr Cruddas, committed any offence or behaved improperly. If Miss Southern was guilty of anything, it was simply a desire to impress potential clients and win their business.

As with Mr Cruddas, Miss Southern had been told by both the Metropolitan Police and the Electoral Commission, which dutifully looked into complaints against her, that she had done nothing wrong and they planned to take no further action.

At this point, I should declare an “interest” in that I have known Miss Southern for approaching a decade as a result of our mutual support for the Conservative Party. I first got to know her after she started to work in the autumn of 2004 as the national organiser of Conservative Future, the party’s youth wing. Since then, our paths have crossed on and off, including when she worked for David Cameron’s events and visits’ team in the run-up to the 2010 election.

Miss Southern says that, after being introduced through an intermediary, she received a phone call to her mobile phone early on the evening of 4 January 2012 from a “representative” of a supposed wealth fund, Global Zenith.

As well as setting up a false website and giving false names, Hayley Harris (aka Heidi Blake) and John Brewster (aka Jonathan Calvert), from the supposed Lichtenstein-based “fund”, then spent a small fortune to allay her suspicions as they claimed they wanted her to work for them.

On 18 January, Miss Southern was flown business class by Global Zenith (aka The Sunday Times) from London to Zurich and met by a chauffeur-driven Mercedes that took her to a luxury hotel. Later she was wined, dined and wooed by “Ms Harris” and “Mr Brewster”. They apparently said they had a substantial fund to invest in Britain, and they were particularly keen to take a stake in the Royal Mail as it was being considered for privatisation.

Some will believe that Miss Southern should have carried out more thorough investigation into her new clients, but she says she conducted, through internet searches and the like, all the basic checks available to a sole operator. She says too that she liked the two “business executives” and was eager to help them. Furthermore, of course, she wanted to earn a fee for her work. So she put together a proposal and was delighted when she landed the “contract”.

The duo remained in contact with Miss Southern through face-to-face meetings, email and phone over the next three months, exploring the possibility of meeting senior Tory politicians. They were always professional and efficient except – surprise, surprise – when it came to signing off her agreed six-month contract and paying her monthly fees. Needless to say, she never received a penny for the work that she did for them.

At their request, Miss Southern then arranged for “Ms Harris” and “Mr Brewster” to meet Mr Cruddas with a view to making a donation to the party. This meeting took place on 15 March last year at Mr Cruddas’s London offices – a meeting that was secretly video recorded and which formed the basis of The Sunday Times’s four high-profile stories more than a week later.

On the afternoon of Saturday, 24 March, as Miss Southern was returning to London with a friend from a day out, she received news that she has said “was like being hit by a train”: a call from Jonathan Calvert, the head of the The Sunday Times’s Insight team, who informed her that he was sending her an email relating to a story the paper intended to run the next day.

Miss Southern says that she did not respond to any of the specific claims against her because, without the benefit of time to consider her answers, she did not want to “add fuel to the fire”. For the same reason, she shut down her website, Facebook and Twitter accounts that day.

That night images of her – from secretly-filmed videos – were on the BBC1 news. The next day her name was spread liberally over articles in The Sunday Times although the main thrust of them was that Mr Cruddas had allegedly offered access to the Prime Minister in return for substantial donations to the Conservative Party.

Soon Miss Southern realised that every minute she had spent in the company of, or talking to, the undercover reporters had been recorded. She says that she barely ate for a week, refused to leave the refuge of a friend’s house for a fortnight and still does not feel confident enough to return to the “Westminster village”.

As with Mr Cruddas, she received no formal contact from the Conservative Party or Number 10, but she is grateful for private messages of support from family, friends and political contacts (including both senior Conservative and Labour political figures).

However, Miss Southern’s clients drifted away one by one in the light of the adverse publicity and her being too shocked to work normally. Eventually, she decided to close her business down and she is now unemployed.

Miss Southern says that she feels “violated” by the newspaper and feels the eight years she put into building a career in politics has all been in vain.

Last month, in fact, she was in line for a good job, and one she would have liked, but after doing “due diligence” on her, her prospective employers discovered her episode with The Sunday Times and told her that “your past has caught up with you”. The anticipated job offer did not materialise.

Miss Southern is remorseful that her actions inadvertently led to Mr Cruddas’s resignation as Treasurer. She is equally distraught that her own life is in turmoil and that she has suffered from acute stress. However, she is now “delighted” that Mr Cruddas won his two claims against the paper, and that the tactics and motives of the two journalists were so fiercely criticised by the judge.

Miss Southern is mentioned dozens of times in Mr justice Tugendhat’s judgment and she considers it has gone a long way to restoring her reputation. He noted, for example, that the initial recorded meeting with her and the source of the original tip-off to the paper “produced no evidence to support his allegation, and strong evidence to refute it.”

Even if Miss Southern’s critics are right and she was foolish to be duped by the newspaper, even if she did make some indiscreet comments thinking she was speaking privately to two new contacts whom she had warmed to, I do not believe she deserved what she has described as the “living hell” of the past 16 months.

As I have said before, newspapers can, on occasions, justify subterfuge to expose great evils and wrongdoings by public figures and others. But how can any reputable newspaper justify devoting thousands of pounds and several months to destroying the life of a young career woman who did nothing wrong?

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