Johnny Mercer MP’s appearance on Have I Got News For You didn’t reach the heights of car-crash TV and may not even make the end-of-season highlights episode. It may however make it into the textbooks of law students – to my knowledge, no-one has ever sued a corporation for libel and then immediately appeared on a comedy panel show hosted by that corporation to state their position.
Mercer appears to be so confident in his hand that he’s showed it to the BBC before betting has even started.
Normally it would be slightly unfair to overanalyse what people on comedy panel shows say, as they’re there to be funny, not 100% accurate. However, it’s still worth examining Mercer’s stated position on his Crucial Academy job, as this was essentially a preview of a libel action. Held on the defendant’s home turf, as opposed to the neutral ground of a court.
It is also worth examining what the BBC said (via David Tennant’s autocue) as well. The BBC didn’t lose any time before doubling down on their allegation – which Mercer regards as libel – that Mercer’s salary can be linked to LCF.
Tennant: And with Paul tonight is a Conservative MP whose second job, partly funded by the marketing company for a bond scheme that lost savers millions, has caused him to sue the BBC, and that’s before we have even started the show. Please welcome along with his legal team, Johnny Mercer MP.
Hislop: This is great. It’s a libel action and I haven’t joined in yet!
The fact that the BBC (via Tennant) repeated the bit I have underlined, when their lawyers could have watered it down to, e.g, “who is suing the BBC over allegations regarding his second job”, indicates Mercer is not the only one confident in their position.
Hislop: You were on a reality show, you were on Hunted.
Mercer: I was, yeah, to raise money for Stand Up To Cancer.
Hislop: Oh, you’re pulling that whole charity…
Mercer: Of course, yes. Because I can just see you cocking your…
Zoe Lyons: You’ve got better eyesight than me!
Merton: How long did you survive before you were found?
Mercer: I won! *audience applauds*
Hislop [to audience]: You’re applauding the fact that one of your representatives bunked off for two weeks and went on telly instead. *audience laughs*
Mercer: Yeah, absolutely right. What a good man.
Hislop: This libel trial is going to go well!
Mercer: I can’t wait.
Hislop: What bit did the BBC get wrong?
Mercer: This idea… so I run a company that trains veterans to go into cyber employment, and four companies away from that is a company that’s gone bust.
Hislop: Yeah, it’s not many companies. It’s quite a big company, four people have been arrested. Big story.
Mercer: It’s a big story, but…
Hislop: But you never, you never…
Mercer: Of course not. Why would I have anything to do with financial products?
Hislop: Not interested in losing your £85,000 salary, for a four hour…?
Mercer: Yes, and it was provided through business in that company, that that company generated had nothing to do with us.
Hislop: How does training veterans make enough money to earn you 85 grand?
Mercer: Because if you train them in cybersecurity and they have specialist skills, they go into FTSE 100 companies and they earn quite a lot of money in cybersecurity. I sound like a right bastard, don’t I, doing this whole sort of veterans employment thing?
Hislop: No, it’s not the veterans bit, it’s the £85,000 for a four-hour job.
Mercer: I know what you’re thinking…
Hislop: I’m thinking “Why don’t you do it for free?”
Mercer: I know, because you get 20 grand for 2 hours tonight, don’t you?
Hislop: Yeah, but the people who lost money out of this company are very cross with you. It’s about your behaviour and the fact you didn’t know, and didn’t ask, as a non-executive director, “Where does the money come from?”
Mercer: I did ask where the money came from and it came from the business, it’s generated by the business that we do.
Hislop: They were providing the money that kept your company going.
Mercer: No they didn’t. That’s why the BBC are being sued for libel, because no money went from that company into Crucial Academy.
Hislop: But it did though.
Mercer: Ok, well, you can keep saying that but it really didn’t.
Merton: This is one for Judge Rinder. *bemused audience laughs*
At this point Hislop and Mercer are probably talking at cross purposes as neither has specified who they mean by “that company”. Hislop may be referring to Surge, as the fact that Surge made a £300k loan to Crucial is a matter of public record. Mercer is almost certainly referring to London Capital & Finance, who paid £60 million commission to Surge. Whether that £300,000 came out of LCF’s £60 million is the point at issue.
Hislop: I’m merely trying to establish the facts. You say you’re going to sue the BBC for reporting a story that everybody else has run, and you say that’s not how the money got there.
Mercer: I am absolutely sure that not a single penny has come from LCF and gone into Crucial Academy. If it has, I would leave.
Hislop: It hasn’t gone directly in, it’s gone through a series of other companies.
Mercer: No, directly or indirectly. If it had, I would leave. Any more?
Hislop: Alright, well, we’ll see what happens.
Lyons: This is like all of my Christmas dinners with my family. *bemused and bored audience laughs*
Tennant: [trying to move the show along] Remember Ann Widdecombe? *more laughter*
Hislop: I’m sorry, David, it’s a big story. Four people were arrested and I know you think your political enemies have smeared you with this story…
Mercer: No, I don’t. I don’t think that. I don’t think they have smeared me with this story.
Tennant: But you have accused the Deputy Chief Whip of trying to dig up dirt.
At this point Mercer begins talking about a non-LCF-related “smear” against him involving the Deputy Chief Whip checking whether stories in Mercer’s military memoirs were true.
Let’s leave that aside and remind ourselves what Mercer said specifically about the LCF story on Twitter:
The question at issue is a fairly simple one as corporate finance goes. The BBC asserts that the £300,000 received from Surge is part of the pot used to pay Mercer from September until the loan was repaid.
Mercer has asserted on national TV that his salary comes entirely from revenue received by Crucial Academy for its trading activity, training ex-soldiers in cyber security. And that the Surge loan went in and out of the company without touching the pot used to pay him.
As a non-executive director, Mercer has access to Crucial Academy’s accounts and it should be a fairly easy matter to determine whether Crucial Academy, despite being a new startup which only launched a year ago, earns sufficient revenue from cybersecurity training to pay its non-executive director £85,000 a year from that revenue source alone.
Even if it does, Mercer’s attempt to portray his £350-an-hour non-exec-post as an act of benevolence on behalf of fellow veterans – “[sarcastically] I sound like a real bastard, don’t I?” – is difficult to take seriously.