The founder of the Leave.EU campaign group Arron Banks has lost his libel action against award-winning journalist Carole Cadwalladr in a highly anticipated judgement considered to be a serious test for press freedom both in the UK, and internationally.
The judgement handed down on 13 June by Mrs Justice Steyn DBE established that Cadwalladr’s reporting was done in the public interest and dismissed Bank’s claims.
In 2019, the multimillionaire Brexit backer sued Cadwalladr personally for defamation based on a TED talk she gave that year, and a corresponding tweet sharing a link to her talk, in which Cadwalladr said that Banks was lying about his relationship with the Russian State.
After four days of hearings in January, Cadwalladr’s lawyer, Gavin Millar QC, argued in his closing written submissions that the journalist’s reporting on Banks and the Russian State was of the greatest public interest imaginable. Cadwalladr’s defence rested on the journalistic principle of public interest: more specifically, whether it was “reasonable” for her to believe that publishing such statements was acting in that interest.
In dismissing the claim by Banks, the Judge said: “A key factor, in my judgment, is whether Ms Cadwalladr had reasonable grounds to believe that her intended meaning was true … I consider that when she gave the Ted Talk, she did.”
— ARTICLE 19 (@article19org) June 13, 2022
The judge added: “Based on her investigation, Ms Cadwalladr had reasonable grounds to believe that (i) Mr Banks had been offered ‘sweetheart’ deals by the Russian government in the period running up to the EU referendum, although she had seen no evidence he had entered into any such deals; and (ii) Mr Banks’s financial affairs, and the source of his ability to make the biggest political donations in UK history, were opaque.”
Several press freedom groups including Reporters without Borders (RSF), Article19 and Pen International, among others, backed Cadwalladr, and have repeatedly raised their concerns over the wider implications of a wealthy and prominent individual choosing to sue an individual freelance journalist.
RSF and other organisations consider this case to be an example of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), as it is vexatious in nature and intended to silence Cadwalladr’s investigative journalism.
Cadwalladr’s case is also representative of an industry of lawyers and reputation managers who use the English legal system to protect the reputations of their rich and powerful clients including targeting individual journalists in legal filings, as well as – or instead of – their media organisations.
Moreover, ever since The Guardian and The Observer newspapers published the first story in an investigative series into the scandal that compromised the Facebook accounts of up to 87 million users, Cadwalladr, has also become the target of a malign, misogynistic, disinformation-laced campaign of online violence which has grown increasingly threatening over time.
It turns out it’s a bad day for bullies who wish to silence public interest reporting, and an excellent day for press freedom! Congratulations to @carolecadwalla for winning this landmark battle for journalism. At @RSF_inter, we’re proud to stand with her! https://t.co/5VuDJZyS3E
— Rebecca Vincent (@rebecca_vincent) June 13, 2022
Upon news of the Court’s decision in favour of Cadwalladr, Rebecca Vincent, International Campaign Director at Reporters Without Borders wrote: “We are thrilled that the High Court has issued this landmark ruling in favour of press freedom. Today is a victory for Carole Cadwalladr, whose courageous investigative journalism and fight against this abusive lawsuit will have important implications for press freedom, but also journalism as a whole. We are proud to have stood by her side in this crucial fight.”
In its statement welcoming the UK Court’s decision RSF also emphasised how “the ruling has serious implications for journalism not only in the UK, but internationally, given the popularity of London courts as a jurisdiction for such vexatious suits, and highlights the need for greater protections for journalists facing abusive legal threats.”
London firms have repeatedly been used to threaten journalists in Malta, with the government of Malta also actively seeking their services to push back against criticism.