A former Royal Navy captain who has brought a privacy claim against the Ministry of Defence has told the High Court of his ‘eternal shame’ at the bullying behaviour which cost him his command.
David Axon is suing the MoD for substantial damages after an employee, Bettina Jordan-Barber, sold information about him to a journalist at The Sun for £5,000.
Mrs Jordan-Barber later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office and was jailed for 12 months.
Mr Axon’s claim for breach of confidence, misuse of private information and breach of his Article 8 privacy rights is contested by the MoD, which denies vicarious liability and has issued a claim for an indemnity against publishers News Group Newspapers (NGN).
The career naval officer left his ship, HMS Somerset, in December 2004 – four days before the article appeared in The Sun – after an Equal Opportunities investigation made adverse findings against him and concluded his position on board was ‘untenable’.
At the investigation, Mr Axon said he was devastated that officers considered his behaviour to be bullying as he had never set out intentionally to belittle or bully anyone.
He later accepted that the investigation had rendered his position very difficult and, with the best interests of the ship firmly in mind, did not oppose the application for his removal.
He told Mr Justice Nicol in London today: ‘I accept that I bullied my officers, to my eternal shame.’
He said that he shouted at officers both in private and, on rare occasions, in front of other officers.
It was a matter ‘of great regret’ that the ensuing confidential process, to which he had fully subscribed and which resulted in a five-year censure on his personnel record, was subverted by a breach of his confidence, he added.
The effect on his reputation of the allegations becoming public had caused problems with finding employment.
‘That’s absolutely the case. It’s that plus more. The broadspread sensationalised nature, the fact it was reported with no balance. It was uncontrolled.
‘That has an impact on me and my employment and my efforts to convince others that I have acknowledged and deeply regret the outcomes on the Somerset, and that I am working to change things and change my behaviour.
‘As I stand here, I am not a bully.’
Mr Axon added: ‘It was humiliating and embarrassing to realise I had let my officers down and my ship down. The impact on me at the time was dramatic, I admit, but for me the real damage was the impact on my ship’s company.’
Christina Michalos, counsel for the MoD, argues that Mr Axon’s removal from command was not a matter concerning his private life or confidential as it concerned public duties.
Any duties of confidence in respect of the information were owed to the MoD and not to Mr Axon.
She claimed that Mr Axon was unable to prove that Mrs Jordan-Barber was the source of each separate item of information complained of as the allegations were widely known to the ship’s crew, family and friends.
The MoD was not vicariously liable as Mrs Jordan-Berber was not authorised to communicate with the media and was positively prohibited from doing so. The case was also brought outside the legal time limit.
‘Any damage the claimant has suffered is due to the fact he was found to have misconducted himself in public office, bullied those under his command and was removed from a deployed warship as a result.
‘The damage is due to the claimant’s own conduct and purely reputational – insofar as there is any unwarranted reputational damage caused by the publication of true facts.’
NGN’s case is that the action should be dismissed and it is not liable for any damage found.