Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr and prominent Brexiteer Arron Banks were both at the High Court today for the start of a libel trial.
The court heard allegations that Cadwalladr, who broke the Cambridge Analytica scandal, defamed Leave.EU co-founder Banks in a Ted Talk she gave in April, during a speech at a convention in June and in two tweets sent in June and July.
During the Ted Talk, which is still available online, Cadwalladr said: “And I’m not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government.”
Banks gave £8m to two Brexit campaign groups during the EU Referendum campaign in 2016 and denies having received any money from Russia.
William McCormick QC, representing Banks, said the manner in which Cadwalladr’s claim is presented to the viewer was important.
He added: “Our case in a nutshell is very simple: we say the words complained about are concise, they are unambiguous and they are unqualified.”
McCormick, of Ely Place Chambers, told the court the Ted Talk, titled: Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy, was a “serious presentation about a serious subject”.
He said a reasonable viewer would take it as “indisputable that lies have been told by Mr Banks about the topic” and that in her reputation as an investigative journalist Cadwalladr “would be taken to mean what she said” and not “carried away by a flight of hyperbole”.
He said Cadwalladr had later “doubled down” on the claim in a tweet announcing Banks’ lawsuit against her, in which she again alleged Banks had “lied about his contact with [the] Russian govt” and included a link to her Ted Talk.
Gavin Millar QC, for Cadwalladr, said isolating the Ted Talk comment from its context, discussing campaign funding and the Electoral Commission, led to an “unrealistic interpretation”.
Millar said a reasonable viewer would understand Cadwalladr’s words to mean there are “reasonable grounds to suspect that [Banks] has lied about having a secret relationship with the Russian government and there are grounds to investigate whether that relationship involved acceptance of foreign funding in breach of the law on funding referendum campaigns”.
Millar, of Matrix Chambers, said Cadwalladr’s tweet sharing the Ted Talk would be understood to “bear the same meaning as that talk”.
In a second tweet, sharing a Buzzfeed story about public prosecutors opening an investigation into Italian party Lega and Russia following the release of a taped meeting in Moscow, Cadwalladr said: “Case is mirror image of Arron Banks + Russians.”
McCormick said there was “no direct context for what she is saying” in the tweet, adding that “mirror image” here means “this is the same as Mr Banks and Russia” and was therefore defamatory.
Millar said the term “mirror image” was given as opinion, written in “casual an abbreviated language” offering an “immediate impressionistic response” to a breaking news story, and not stated as fact.
In the convention talk, which was also broadcast online, Cadwalladr claimed: “We know that the Russian government offered money to Arron Banks. And so, there’s still question marks.”
She also mentioned a “gold and diamond deal” offered to Banks by the Russian government, reported in the press, which he has said he rejected.
McCormick said the “natural and obvious inference… is that the reason for the Russian government making this offer to [Banks] was because there were strong grounds to believe that he would, in return, assist it.”
Millar said this too was an “unrealistic” interpretation, adding: “There’s too much stroke the wrong context given” to the meaning of the words. He said the term money was “clearly a shorthand” for the “offer of a golf and diamond deal” and so not defamatory.
Banks is seeking an unlimited amount in damages and £10,528 in court fees plus legal costs to be confirmed.
Today’s trial hearing was on the preliminary issue of the meaning of Cadwalladr’s words. Mr Justice Saini said he would deliver his judgment on this next week.
Picture: Reuters/Hannah McKay and Press Gazette