Libel in the schoolyard
Why would a London primary school employ the services of a political lobbying firm --- and libel lawyers Carter Ruck? asks Richard Wilson
31 May 11

Durand Academy logoRichard Wilson asks: Why would a London primary school employ the services of a political lobbying firm — and libel lawyers Carter Ruck?

A South London primary school is funding a libel action brought by current and former employees over three emails sent by the Chief Auditor of Lambeth Council. The school has ignored a freedom of information request for details of how much it is spending on the court action — but Index on Censorship believes that the costs may already have run into six figures.

The case of Durand Academy raises serious questions both about the chilling effect of UK libel law, and the creeping encroachment of the “reputation management” industry into public life. The school, which is funded largely from the public purse, has admitted paying over £199,000 to a PR firm run by its Vice Chair of Governors.

Sometimes the way in which a question is answered can be as revealing as the content of the response.

Earlier this year I got an intriguing tip-off about one of the government’s flagship Academy schools, Durand Primary School in Stockwell, South London. I emailed the school to get their side of the story. Less than half an hour later I had a somewhat stern reply:

I’d like to invite you to visit the school and hope you’d accept our offer before writing anything. We would be extremely unhappy if you didn’t take us up on this and as always, we protect the reputation of our school — which provides outstanding education to 930 children — vigorously.

The message had come from a email address, but the person who’d sent it hadn’t mentioned their job title, so I googled her name. I was surprised to find her listed as an employee of a PR company called “Political Lobbying and Media Relations”(PLMR).

A few days later I emailed the school to ask if PLMR was providing its services pro bono or whether the school was paying. If so, how much money was involved and how did they justify the cost?I also asked about the fact that PLMR’s Managing Director, Kevin Craig, appeared to be Vice Chair of the school’s board of Governors. Was the school satisfied that there was no conflict of interest here?

A couple of hours later I had a message from Kevin Craig himself, copying his company lawyers:

I am very happy to answer your all questions on Monday morning.

If in the meantime you publish anything about me in any forum that damages me, my reputation, my company, or this wonderful school that i [sic] care deeply about, in any way then I of course won’t hesitate to take the strongest possible action.

That is not a threat by the way — I just want you to be assured of how seriously I take media enquiries…

Monday morning came and went but I heard nothing more from Kevin Craig. A promised response from the Board of Governors also failed to materialise. But further digging confirmed that “Durand Primary School” was listed as a “fee paying client” of PLMR by the Association of Professional Political Consultants.

Meanwhile, I’d been finding out more about Durand’s involvement with the controversial libel law firm Carter Ruck.

In a landmark case in the early 1990s, the House of Lords ruled that there was “no public interest favouring the right of organs of government, whether central or local, to sue for libel… to admit such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech”

So notwithstanding the school’s determination to “protect our reputation… vigorously”, as a public body, Durand Academy cannot sue for libel.

Yet individual staff and governors can take action over allegations made about the school, so long as they can make the case that they were personally defamed within the discussion.

Last year Carter Ruck represented Greg Martin, Durand’s former headteacher (now the school’s director of educational development), in a successful libel action over allegations made about him by the father of a former trainee teacher to the General Teaching Council.

Carter Ruck have also been employed in a completely separate case, in which Greg Martin, along with Durand’s current head, Mark Mclaughlin, and former chair of governors, Jim Davies, are suing Lambeth Council and its Chief Internal Auditor Mohammed Khan over three emails in which Mr Khan raised concerns about the management of the school.

A recent interim court ruling details the allegations that Mr Khan is said to have made:

That there are a number of serious concerns regarding the running of Durand School, which previous investigations have failed to put right and for which the Claimants as Head Teachers and Chairman of the Governors respectively are culpably responsible, in particular:

(a) failing to implement proper training standards or provide proper support for newly qualified Teachers [“NQTs”] who start their careers at Durand,

(b) unreasonably dismissing able teachers before completion of their induction year simply because they do not fit into the way the school works,

(c) giving a false and/or misleading explanation to Lambeth Council, the body responsible for NQT Induction for the unacceptably high number of NQTs who leave before the completion of their induction,

(d) wilfully breaching the school’s obligations under employment law towards teaching staff, in that contracts of employment are not given to NQTs

(e) failing to comply with the Lambeth Borough Council issued following an audit in 2003 of the school’s finances carried out by the Chief Internal Auditor that the governors and head teacher adhere to proper financial controls in the running of the schools and in particular that the governing body ensure complete and transparent separation of duties and activities between the school and its commercial partners. This has resulted in justifiable concern on the part of the local authority that there remains a lack of transparency in the arrangements between the school and the third party management company, G M G, and that the Second Claimant is being allowed to benefit improperly and/or unfairly from these arrangements to the detriment of the school.

That these concerns are so serious and so pressing that they warrant the involvement of the Department of Children Schools and Families in helping the local authority to resolve them”.

The claimants, in turn, deny these allegations, contending that:

The Defendants (through the second Defendant) knew that there was no basis for making the allegations he was making. In particular, he knew that there was no basis for alleging that (a) the Claimants were failing in their duties to train or support NQTs, (b) that there were outstanding issues in relation to the financial arrangements to the school, its management company and the Second Claimant. As regards the latter allegations, the Second Defendant had personally instigated and audited the school as long ago as 2003 and all the issues raised in connection with it had been addressed to the satisfaction of the Nominated Financial Representative appointed by the defendants themselves in order to carry out the audit (as expressly stated in the latter’s final report on the subject).

The Second Defendant’s conduct in making the allegations complained of was not carried out bona fide or for any legitimate purpose connected with the DCSF’s request for advice, but was by way of continuation of a campaign which has been waged for years against Durand School by the First Defendant [Lambeth Council] and its employees, in particular the Second Defendant; Phyllis Dunipace, Executive Director of Education (later Director for Children and Young People); Kevin Ronan, Recruitment and Retention Manager; and Mark Hynes Director of Legal and Democratic Services.

The Defendants do not accept any of this and continue to fight the claim.

Readers will have their own views about how appropriate it is for the libel courts to get involved in this kind of dispute. The emails in question were copied to less than a dozen people. Costs in such cases can easily run into six figures and Carter Ruck in particular are notoriously expensive to retain.

But whatever the merits of the case, according to the same ruling, Durand Academy — a state school supported largely by the taxpayer is funding the libel action. Given that the main defendant is also a publicly-funded body, the taxpayer seems destined to lose out whoever wins the case.

In a recent interview about the art of “Crisis Management”, PLMR’s Kevin Craig (who, as noted above, also happens to be Durand’s Vice Chair of Governors) told Reuters that “Openness is the only way… Anything else… will only make the problem worse in the long-term”.

On 21 March I made a freedom of information request, asking Durand Academy to reveal how much it has been paying Carter Ruck and PLMR for their services. Given that public bodies are required by law to respond to an FOI request within 20 working days, and given the school’s track record, I had expected that they would want to resolve the matter quickly and robustly.

Despite repeated assurances that an answer was on the way, Durand never got back to me. But earlier this month, the school revealed on its website that it had paid £199,294.30 in fees to PLMR between April 2009 and December 2010.To date the school has failed to come clean about how much it is paying Carter Ruck.

The state of our public education system is the subject of fierce and passionate debate — from the strengths and weaknesses of the “Academy” model and the training of new teachers, to the conditions in which staff work and the financial management of individual schools. The issues at stake have a direct bearing on our children’s future prospects and on the long-term direction of our society. There is surely a clear public interest in our being able to have this debate openly and free from the fear of a crippling High Court defamation case.

The management team at Durand Academy are no doubt passionately committed to their work, and determined to stand up for themselves in the face of criticism. But it seems it to me that something has gone horribly wrong with the law when a dispute is being played out in the libel courts. It’s hard to find a clearer illustration of the need for libel reform than the case of Durand Academy.

Richard Wilson is a freelance writer and blogger. He is the author of Titanic Express and Don’t Get Fooled Again. You can find him on Twitter @dontgetfooled