FT editor Roula Khalaf calls for slate of legal changes to combat SLAPPs

FT editor Roula Khalaf: UK enables 'professionalised intimidation' of journalists

Roula Khalaf FT SLAPPs

Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf has called for action to stop the “professionalised intimidation” of journalists in the UK legal system.

Speaking at this year’s Hugh Cudlipp Lecture, Khalaf called for caps on legal costs and powers for judges to halt libel claims early.

Her comments come amid growing calls to tackle strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) – suits brought by wealthy individuals and large companies with the goal of silencing journalists.

[Read more: Govt proposes anti-SLAPP clampdown after reporters name UK law firms working with Russian oligarchs to silence journalists]

Khalaf also spoke about the targeting of journalists and journalism by governments internationally, including both autocracies and democracies.

Her speech on Wednesday marked the return of the lecture in honour of late Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp, which was cancelled last year by the pandemic. 

The former foreign correspondent used the podium to connect her own experiences, and those of the FT under her tenure, to global press freedom trends. The talk took place the day after World Press Freedom Day 2022.

According to Khalaf: “From autocracies to illiberal democracies and unfortunately even thriving democracies, journalists are maligned and manipulated, harassed and intimidated…

“Our experience at the FT starkly illustrates the enabling nature of our system to exert pressure on public interest journalism and the threat that is ominously close to home.”

Khalaf described the FT’s experience breaking the Wirecard scandal – which saw the journalist leading the coverage, Dan McCrum, subjected to smear campaigns, doctored chat logs and private investigators.

McCrum won the Journalist of the Year prize at the British Journalism Awards in 2020 for his work on the investigation.

[Read more: Wirecard – How the FT proved the pen is mightier than a €24bn criminal gang]

Khalaf said: “In the UK too, the legal intimidation of journalists by wealthy individuals and corporations has become more prevalent and professionalised.

“And it is our very own legal system and our lawyers that facilitate it.”

Khalaf cited the recent suit brought against FT journalist Tom Burgis by Kazakh mining group the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation.

ENRC claimed parts of the book would be read by an ordinary reader as indicating the company was connected to three murders relating to its business interests.

“We saw this as a typical case of a SLAPP”, Khalaf said.

“We were vindicated in this case, too: ENRC dropped its lawsuit in March this year. But that case, and others, as well as the related realisation of the numerous benefits that Russian oligarchs have availed themselves of to silence critics has rightly sparked a debate.

“But the time for reform is now.”

Khalaf outlined what reforms she recommended later in the lecture.

“Caroline Kean, a partner at the law firm Wiggin, recently wrote in the FT that public figures and corporations should have to find credible evidence of actual damage before pursuing a claim. Judges must be given the power to stop a libel claim at the point they decide the words in question are worthy of protection.

“So what we need is a reformed, more effective public interest defence.

“We need a fast track case assessment procedure whereby Courts can quickly dismiss any lawsuit that attacks ‘public participation’ journalism…

“And there needs to be fixed rate capping of legal costs that the losing party has to pay so that defending a publication is not financially ruinous.

“Within our own countries, we can set a better example whether in our rules or in our behaviour. We underestimate the influence institutions and democratic countries have on the behaviour of more unsavoury regimes.

“When democracies conceal the truth, fabricate documents or allow their rules to protect their ill-gotten gains from probing by journalists, they help to legitimise the behaviour of undemocratic regimes.”

Earlier in her speech, Khalaf had noted that “The US Republican National Committee – the party leadership body – officially defended the January 6 rioters that assaulted Congress as proponents of legitimate political discourse, who are being unfairly targeted.”

[Read more: World Press Freedom Index 2022 – RSF warns spreading ‘Fox News-isation’ has amplified polarisation]

She had also highlighted cases in both autocracies and democracies where press freedom was notably under stress.

“Take Hungary, where Viktor Orban has been taking control of the media since taking office in 2010, starving independent media of advertising resources, diverting it instead to companies acquired by investors with close ties to the Hungarian government.

“Take Poland’s ultra-conservative Justice and Law Party, which has passed an amendment that bars companies majority-owned by entities outside the European Economic Area from owning a controlling stake in Polish broadcasters.”

Khalaf listed various cases in which such governments had been allowed to “get away with murder”.

Giving first the example of Sunday Times war reporter Marie Colvin, she followed: “At times regimes fear not what you write but what you could write in the future. That was what sealed the fate of Jamal Khashoggi.

“I had known Jamal since the 1990s when I started covering the Middle East. He understood Saudi Arabia and its ruling family better than most, and I often sought his insights when I was writing my analysis.

“In a column in The Washington Post in 2017, Jamal wrote about leaving his home in order to keep reporting on the increasingly repressive Saudi regime… ‘I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot.’

“He kept speaking, often through more columns in the Post. But not for long: in October 2018, Jamal went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to apply for a marriage licence.

“He never came out. His dismembered body has never been recovered.

“There was much international outrage at the killing. And it was loud enough to suggest that it could radically alter the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the West. US-Saudi relations remain frosty to this day, in part because of the killing. 

“Gradually though, the Saudi Crown Prince, who intelligence agencies assess would likely have ordered the killing, is also being rehabilitated.”

[Read more: Pleas for ‘justice and accountability’ one year on from Jamal Khashoggi murder]

“Technology has made it easier for autocrats to target journalists in various ways. An investigation in 2021 conducted by the journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and seventeen media partners found a spyware licensed by the Israeli company NSO Group was used to target smartphones belonging to 37 journalists, human rights activists and other prominent figures.

“This involved obtaining access to your phone and everything on it for extended periods of time. 

“I was one of those journalists targeted. I’m confident that I was targeted by one particular government over several weeks.

“The idea that this government should have had my phone, access to my work emails or my personal details, personal messages, pictures of my family is chilling. 

“And what I would like to see are formal investigations into governments’ use of NSO software – and consequences.”

[Read more: FT editor Roula Khalaf on war stories, sleepless nights and keeping her journalists safe]

Touching on her time as a Middle East correspondent for the FT, Khalaf said: “I had to write about everything from politics to business, society, economics.

“In my case, it also meant, at times, covering events in dangerous places. I wasn’t always covering the big stories – there was a joke back then at the FT that some of us wrote for the ‘small wars’ page.

“But that’s what made the FT special – and still makes it special. It pays attention to the world. 

“It’s true that at the FT we don’t do frontline reporting – war correspondents would joke in the days when I covered Iraq that once they arrived, they could leave because the time for war reporting was over and the time for analysis had begun.”

A recurring theme in the talk was the protection and benefit offered to journalists by being associated with an institution.

Khalaf described the danger faced by freelances in warzones, and when asked by an audience member about the growth of newsletter platform Substack, said: “I think that you cannot really do proper investigative journalism if you’re completely on your own. You need an institution, you need the protection of an institution. You need the editors and the lawyers.

“And I don’t think that the turbulence [of journalists going their own way away from institutions] is about investigative journalism. It is however about some writers feeling that there are no outlets that will employ them and therefore that they can do it on their own and they can build a brand.

“And I think it works if you are already a brand, financially speaking. I think it’s very difficult if you’re not a brand, and you’re trying to get your own subscribers.

“I mean, believe me, it’s difficult enough to get subscribers if you are in an institution.”

[Read more: FT hits 1m paying digital subscribers with online journalism matching all its other revenue streams combined]

Picture: Press Gazette

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