The dismissal of the libel case brought by millionaire Brexit donor Arron Banks against journalist Carole Cadwalladr has been dubbed a “victory for freedom of speech”.
One lawyer noted that the case demonstrates the High Court’s “willingness to allow public interest defences, which are an important tool for journalists when defending proceedings”.
Cadwalladr’s victory came despite Mrs Justice Steyn’s ruling that the Observer contributor had seriously damaged Banks’s reputation, on the grounds that it was reasonable for her to believe publication of the allegations were in the public interest.
Banks sued Cadwalladr (pictured) over her remark in a 2019 Ted talk that said: “I’m not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government.”
He also sued over a tweet in which Cadwalladr shared the talk and repeated the claim.
Keith Mathieson, partner and head of RPC’s media team which acted for Cadwalladr, said: “Today’s judgment is an important vindication not just of Carole, but of the right of everyone to express themselves freely on matters of public interest.
“The judge undertook a highly detailed and careful examination of what Carole said in the statements Mr Banks sued on and rightly found that Carole was entitled to say what she honestly and reasonably believed based on years of investigation.
“The judgment gives significant support to the public interest defence in the law of defamation and the protection it offers journalists, bloggers and others to contribute to public debate on serious issues.”
Matthew Gill, a senior associate in the media litigation team at Howard Kennedy LLP, said: “While defamation claims by Rebekah Vardy and Johnny Depp may have had more of the public’s attention, today’s judgment is the most important we will see this year.
“The court’s decision is a victory for freedom of speech. It shows that even in the face of an unrelenting opponent, public interest journalism can prevail.”
Mrs Justice Steyn dismissed the portion of the suit regarding Cadwalladr’s tweet. Media law trainer and expert David Banks (of no relation to the litigant) highlighted a passage of the judgment stating that “those within the jurisdiction to whom the tweet was published are likely to consist of people whose opinion of the claimant was of no consequence to him”.
David Banks said: “Because it can be assumed Carole Cadwalladr’s followers don’t think highly of Arron Banks, her tweet about him could not have caused serious harm to his reputation.”
He told Press Gazette: “So those whose followers are predominantly of the same outlook are safer than those whose followers have more diverse views.”
Carolyn Pepper, a libel expert and partner at law firm Reed Smith, said: “The success of the public interest defence here is one which will be celebrated by the media. It illustrates the court’s willingness to allow public interest defences, which are an important tool for journalists when defending proceedings.
“Without the protection of the public interest defence, there would be a chilling effect on the media and so it is very important that there are examples of the court upholding it in cases where it is appropriate to do so.”
Society of Editors executive director Dawn Alford described the judgment as a “hugely important victory” for press freedom, but added that the case “highlights the ongoing challenges and threats faced by journalists in producing public interest journalism that seeks to hold the wealthy and powerful to account”.
Gill said “it should not be as difficult to defend public interest journalism as it was for Carole Cadwalladr.
“Arron Banks’ decision to sue Carole Cadwalladr, and not the publishers of her work – The Guardian, The Observer, or Ted – appears to have been motivated by a desire to take aim at the ‘weakest’ link – the person who Arron Banks might have thought was least likely to have the financial resources to fight back.
“Carole Cadwalladr was only able to defend Arron Banks’s claim due to the generosity of members of the public who crowdfunded her defence to the tune of over £500,000. It should not be that way. It has never been more important that Parliament take steps to protect public interest journalism, including by establishing a media defence indemnity fund.”
Banks’ decision to sue Cadwalladr has been described by some commentators as a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), meaning a case designed to intimidate someone into ending their reporting or other inquiries.
However in her judgment, Mrs Justice Steyn said that although Banks’s claim had failed “his attempt to seek vindication through these proceedings was, in my judgment, legitimate”.
“In circumstances where Ms Cadwalladr has no defence of truth, and her defence of public interest has succeeded only in part, it is neither fair nor apt to describe this as a SLAPP suit,” the judge said.
Despite this others have maintained their view of the case as a SLAPP. Press freedom campaign group Index on Censorship reacted to the judgment by saying: “While we really welcome this fantastic result, we cannot say that it represents an outright win for media freedom.
“No journalist should be forced to spend years tied up in expensive and onerous legal battles to defend their public interest work. Public interest journalism is the lifeblood of our democracy.
“Index on Censorship has long maintained that this case is an example of a strategic lawsuit against public participation… The case underscores the fact that we need anti-SLAPP measures, including legislation, that can weed out abusive cases at an early stage. We need journalists to be able to hold power to account for the good of our media freedom and our democracy.”
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said: “This type of lawfare is cynical and targeted, pursued by those with deep pockets in a manner intended to pile as much pressure on an individual freelance as possible…
“As part of our work campaigning against SLAPPs, the NUJ is calling for the introduction of a clear statutory public interest defence and a series of other measures to ensure that investigative reporting in the public interest is protected from those that seek to undermine journalists and journalism.”
Banks’ lawyer, William McCormick, denied during the trial in January that the suit was a SLAPP. He argued it “is being brought in respect of an allegation which she accepts was false, which [Cadwalladr] does not contest was a serious allegation to make against a man, and which has been published on a massive scale”.
Pepper also disputed the claims the case was a SLAPP.
“In this case the court said that although Mr Banks’s claim has failed, his attempt to seek vindication through the proceedings was legitimate and that it was neither fair nor apt to describe the proceedings as SLAPP litigation,” she said following the judgment.
“There are a number of practical difficulties in identifying SLAPP litigation, which the proposed reforms have to wrestle with and the courts have clearly already begun undertaking the process of attempting to identify SLAPP litigation whilst waiting to see what the reforms will bring.”
Press Gazette reported earlier this month that the UK is the SLAPP tourism capital of Europe. Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf commented in May in her Cudlipp Lecture that the country enables the “professionalised intimidation” of journalists.
Picture: Orwell Foundation