The Sunday Times has claimed to have been "completely vindicated" over a court ruling on a story that accused a Tory party treasurer of offering access to David Cameron in exchange for party donations.
The paper's reporters went undercover to film Peter Cruddas explaining how donations could secure access to politicians and influence over policy making. The articles led to him being ostracised from the party, prompting him to resign, which he later claimed amounted to "constructive dismissal".
After Cruddas won a libel action against The Sunday Times in 2013, Cameron apologised and said: "I congratulate him on his victory and on the verdict he has won. I think it is very deserved."
But on Tuesday, the Court of Appeal largely overturned the original verdict, ordering Cruddas to repay most of the money he was awarded and labelling his behaviour "unacceptable, inappropriate and wrong".
"Cruddas was effectively saying to the journalists that if they donated large sums to the Conservative Party, they would have an opportunity to influence Government policy and to gain unfair commercial advantage through confidential meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers," the judgment said.
The court said the paper had not proved its claim that Cruddas was prepared to break the law by accepting foreign donations and Cruddas could therefore keep £50,000 of the £180,000 he was awarded. He will also have to repay two thirds of the costs the paper had to cover.
In a statement, the paper said it was "completely vindicated for reporting that Peter Cruddas corruptly offered access to David Cameron and other leading members of the Government in exchange for donations".
It added: “This was an important public interest story. Our journalists acted with professionalism and integrity and with the full support of the newspaper’s editors and lawyers.
"They and the newspaper have fought this case for three years.
"Today's judgment confirms that journalism, and in particular undercover journalism, plays a key role in exposing the conversations behind closed doors, that feed public mistrust. In so doing, it serves a vital purpose in a democracy."
Despite losing most of the money awarded and having his conduct branded "wrong", Cruddas maintained he remained "overall winner" and said it was "no victory" for the paper as they still came out having to pay him damages.
He said: “Naturally I am disappointed that the Court of Appeal has allowed part of the Sunday Times’ appeal... The court has said that the newspaper failed 'by a wide margin' to justify their suggestion that I was prepared to break UK electoral law by accepting foreign donations.
"What is more, they have confirmed that based on the Judge’s assessment of the oral evidence which he heard from the Sunday Times journalists, there is no basis for overturning his decision that they were malicious and knew that suggestion to be untrue."
Heidi Blake, one of the reporters involved who now works at BuzzFeed, tweeted that the Gold Inquiry into Tory party donations should be resurrected:
S.Times has fought for 3 yrs to defend articles exposing Cruddas's offer of access, chances to influence policy & insider info to big donors— Heidi Blake (@HeidilBlake) March 17, 2015
Gold Inquiry into Tory donations was mothballed when Cruddas sued & should be urgently reopened in wake of Court of Appeal corruption ruling— Heidi Blake (@HeidilBlake) March 17, 2015
Jonathan Calvert, editor of the paper's investigate Insight team, tweeted:
Sunday Times delighted to be vindicated by Court of Appeal in Cash for Cameron case against ex Tory treasurer Peter Cruddas.— Jonathan Calvert (@JCalvertST) March 17, 2015
The Huffington Post UK asked the Conservative Party about the Gold inquiry and what Cameron thought of the appeal decision, in light of the fact he praised the original verdict. As this article went live, they had not replied.