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Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Harassment, privacy, press freedom and Stephen Cleeve

Last Friday Ian Puddick was cleared at Westminster Crown Court of harassment. Puddick (what a wonderfully English name!) had publicised his wife’s affair with her millionaire boss, Timothy Haynes, on the net using a cocktail of blogs, twitter, facebook etc.  It was reported that the judge ruled Puddick's actions did not form a "course of conduct" and dismissed the charges. 

This case follows on from several weeks of high excitement in the British press over injunctions and superinjunctions gagging the press from reporting on football stars, who have been playing away from home with a bevy of usually generously structured starlets, as well as the head of one of the UK’s biggest bank, who had an affair with a colleague while the bank went into meltdown in 2008. A so-called superinjunction is so secret that there is a ban on even reporting on its existence. I have little doubt that these superinjunctions were first devised by F. Kafka.

Puddick’s case, which will have helped to define the limits of the 1997  Harrassment Act had a particular resonance with me as back in March of this year I received threats from a firm of media lawyers that if I continued to cover the activities of their client, Stephen James Cleeve I was likely to find myself before the High Court for harassment.

I have been writing about/ covering the activities of Mr Cleeve since 1996. Over the years he has sold a succession of dead duck investments starting with barrels of whisky, followed by Champagne for the great millennium party and then it was onto plots of agricultural land that would magically be transformed into goldmines once they were given planning permission. Cleeve’s Champagne offer was partnered by the most hopeless of all drinks investments ever – pipes of ruby Port (the basic sort) – that he sold through his company Forrester & Lamego Ltd until it was closed in the public interest and Cleeve was banned from being a director from 2000 to 2008.

I still have a copy of promotional video put together by Cleeve and his associates for his land-banking venture – European Land Sales. Provided you were not one of the unfortunates that were persuaded to pay over the odds for plots of land that are all too likely to remain worthless, the video is hilarious. My favourite section is Cleeve talking about what happens if ELS doesn’t get planning permission. “ This is a situation where you have to look at our track record,” he explains. “Our track record shows that we do get planning in most of our cases. And, also if we have done our due diligence properly it is something that just does not occur.”

Cleeve was right to say “just does not occur” – in the sense that at the time the video was made ELS had not just never got planning permission for one of their agricultural sites, they had never even submitted one planning application.  Just another of the lies Cleeve confessed to telling in an March 2011 interview with the Herald Sun: "No, no religion at all. To tell you the truth I just got sick of lying, and I had enough. I've gone straight." (http://www.heraldsun.com.au/business/barefoot-investor/confessions-of-an-accidental-conman/story-e6frfim6-1226020093601)

In March 2010 in the lead up to the May 2010 UK General Election Cleeve was chosen as the UKIP’s (UK Independence Party) candidate to fight the Kensington seat in west London. His candidature was short lived as he stood down by the end of March once details of his colourful career emerged.

Most recently Cleeve, a long-time football fan, has been trying to buy Wrexham Football Club. It was a post on my investdrinks blog in February that triggered a letter (3.3.11) from Cleeve’s solicitors’ PSB Law (www.psblaw.co.uk)

They claimed that my ‘recent and ongoing coverage amounts to a possible invasion of privacy and/or possible actionable harassment, in that it would be said to be a course of conduct causing unwarranted distress.

‘For this reason we must request your formal undertaking to cease and desist such coverage of Mr Cleeve’s activities, save to the extent that they concern (as they do not, have not since 1997, nor are expected to be in the future) current activity within the wine and spirits investment sector. We request that undertaking within 14 days. Furthermore we request that you remove the articles and publications, whether or not referred to above, concerning Mr Cleeve, save where they concern current activity within the wine and spirits investment sector. If this is not forthcoming, then proceedings may be commenced in the High Court without further notice to you.’

My response to PSB (14th March 2011):

‘Response to your letters of 3rd and 8th March 2011

There has been no harassment of Stephen Cleeve. I refer you to the Court of Appeal - Iqbal v Dean Manson [2011] EWCA Civ 123 Section 34 paras 32-35 on page 12 of the judgment.

Your claim that I may have invaded Mr Cleeve’s privacy is absurd. I have not intruded into Mr Cleeve’s private life and never made any comment on his private life, which I have no knowledge of or interest in. I have only ever covered your client’s business activities and his public life, for instance as a UKIP parliamentary candidate and, more recently, as a prospective purchaser of Wrexham Football Club.

This grotesque attempt at gagging is an attack on my freedom of expression and contravenes my rights as enshrined in the 1998 Human Rights Act. 

The information contained in my posts on Stephen Cleeve’s brief tenure as UKIP’s parliamentary candidate for Kensington at the 2010 General Election is all in the public domain and my comments are fair, reasonable and in the public interest. I note that you have made no complaint over the accuracy of these posts. Nevertheless I reiterate my invitation of 4th March 2011 to let me know if there are any inaccuracies in them.’

Returning to the Puddick case there are three crucial paragraphs in the Court of Appeal judgment (Iqbal v Dean Manson ) above that supports press freedom:

[33] Prior to the 1997 Act, the freedom with which the press could publish facts or opinions about individuals was circumscribed by the law of defamation. Protection of reputation is a legitimate reason to restrict freedom of expression. Subject to the law of defamation, the press was entitled to publish an article, or series of articles, about an individual, notwithstanding that it could be foreseen that such conduct was likely to cause distress to the subject of the article.

[34] The 1997 Act has not rendered such conduct unlawful. In general, press criticism, even if robust, does not constitute unreasonable conduct and does not fall within the natural meaning of harassment. A pleading, which does no more than allege that the defendant has published a series of articles that have reasonably caused distress to an individual, will be susceptible to a strike-out on the ground that it discloses no arguable case of harassment.

[35] It is common ground between the parties to this appeal, and properly so, that before press publications are capable of constituting harassment, they must be attended by some exceptional circumstance which justifies sanctions and the restriction on the freedom of expression that they involve. It is also common ground that such circumstances will be rare.’

It would seem likely that this judgment will have informed the decision in the Puddick case. If the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act could be used to limit press freedom as demanded by Cleeve’s lawyers, then it would make investigative journalism in the UK even more difficult given our already fierce libel laws and the apparent ease that superinjunctions are granted by the courts.
  
Now that he has turned over a new leaf and ‘gone straight’ Stephen Cleeve has said that he is repaying  At the end of March 2011 I addressed some questions to Cleeve through his lawyers. To date I have had no response to the following:

a) Did any of the sites promoted by European Land Sales (ELS) and Commercial Land ever get planning permission for building development? If so which sites were these? 

b) Are there any sites where ELS/Commercial Land have to date not submitted any planning applications?

c) Has Stephen Cleeve ever managed any successful property development?

d) In an interview with Red Passion (12th March)  Stephen Cleeve explains that he “I am donating all of my retained land into a hardship fund to be used to help any investor who loses money from any of their dealings with me.” Does this fund have a name? Has it paid out any money to date? How much money does he estimate investors have lost through ELS and Commercial Land? How long will it take for these investors to be repaid?

Naturally I will publish any responses received to my questions from Stephen Cleeve or his lawyers. 

See also: This is money 24th April 2011

Update: 26th July 2013
Over two years have past since I replied to Stephen Cleeve's solicitors. To date I have received no response from them or their client either to my letter or my questions about Stephen Cleeve's land banking activities above.  








   



   



12 comments:

  1. Love it Jim !

    Keep up the hard work

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  2. Interesting. I was convinced you were referring to somebody else when referring to this case without naming names.

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  3. Dear Jim

    there is a significant difference when the case of libel involved has no commercial damage and is based on social events... Where Mr.Cleeve is concerned it can be construed that your articles are commercial in nature and have a financial impact on the individual and as such take a different course to the one you have published as it mentions and portrays companies, directorships which are also separate and an autonomous entity to the individual... so in my opinion I would tread a little more carefully before I opened the champagne bottle. I am not condoning Mr. Cleeve but it can always go to a higher and a different ruling

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  4. Anon. Thank you for the advice. However, the challenge was not on libel rather harassment. There was no complaint in the letters that my coverage of Mr Cleeve's activities was inaccurate.

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  5. Dear Jim

    Mr Cleeve is one thing, the companies are another as they are separate legal entities, so talking about them in the same context, even though it may be deemed accurate for one may not be accurate for the other

    regards

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  6. Dear Jim,

    Did Mr Cleeve ever respond to your questions ?
    I am a Wrexham fan and was appalled when he showed up at the Racecourse. He still tweets about us despite his "bid" being rejected and his presence is still a source of some frustration for us.

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    1. Lindsay. Many thanks for your message. I received no reply from Stephen Cleeve or from his media lawyers.

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  7. Maybe Wrexham should sell Mr Cleeve a small parcel of land besides the stadium on the basis that when Wrexham reach the premiership he can sell it on for a huge profit... that way he coudl put his money where is month is and based on Mr Cleeve's previous land activities he should be familiar with and have confidence in that approach to investing!

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    1. Or:'put his money where his mouth is'

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  8. I was sold plot of land through ELS and Commercial Land I was told that planning consent was being put forward by the companies and the investment would increase dramatically. Since then nothing . Does anyone have any knowledge regarding bringing these people to justice for miss selling

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    1. Have you made a complaint through Action Fraud? I would detail what you were told by Stephen Cleeve and his companies and would give the same advice to other people who had dealings with Cleeve and his companies. I suspect that they may well never have applied for planning consent.

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    2. Stephen Cleeve has bought The George Hotel in Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk.
      Ruined what was a lovely rural Norfolk pub. Astronomical prices and owner who looks like a retired porn star with shirt undone to his navel.

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