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April 11, 2024updated 12 Apr 2024 9:22am

Editors unite in bid to stop anti-SLAPP bill being ‘ultimately redundant’

Letter co-ordinated by the Anti-SLAPP Coalition says new bill will still result in uncertainty.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Editors from the likes of the Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Times and The Telegraph have united in an attempt to bolster an anti-SLAPP bill going through Parliament.

More than 60 editors, writers, publishers, lawyers and academics signed a letter to Justice Secretary Alex Chalk and his colleagues urging an amendment to stop the bill from becoming “ineffective, inaccessible, and ultimately redundant” at cracking down on threatening lawsuits aimed at stifling reporting in the public interest.

Scroll down for the full list of signatories

The amendment, proposed by the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition, aims to deal with what the signatories called a “fundamental flaw” at the heart of the Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill, a Private Members’ Bill brought by Labour MP Wayne David which is at committee stage in the Commons and has been backed by the Government.

The bill will expand the Government’s crackdown on SLAPPs to all types of stories, as the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act, which passed into law last year, covers only economic crime.

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[From September 2023: UK’s top editors call for standalone anti-SLAPP bill]

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What about the anti-SLAPP bill needs to change?

The bill defines a SLAPP claim as one intended to restrain the defendant’s “exercise of the right to freedom of speech” on a matter of public interest – and to cause them harassment, alarm, distress or just cost them money.

However the letter warned that requiring courts to make a subjective judgment on the intent of a claimant is a “notoriously difficult, time-intensive, expensive and uncertain process that would undermine the effective operation of the protections the law provides”.

It added: “Using the subjective test will hinder the early dismissal mechanism that sits at the heart of this bill, but by making a small but important amendment, we can ensure courts and judges are able to make timely, consistent and evidence-based determinations of SLAPP cases before legal costs have accrued.”

The letter urged an objective test to be added into the bill instead to “give SLAPP targets greater certainty, while also providing the clarity courts need to effectively apply the new mechanism”.

The signatories also called for the definition of the public interest to be refined.

The bill currently states that reporting on behaviour that is, or is alleged to be, unlawful or to have been a false statement, or on issues of public health and safety, the climate or the environment or an investigation or review being undertaken by a public body, would all be classed as being in the public interest.

The letter said that although these examples are “only illustrative” they “could introduce unnecessary uncertainty” and it is “vital that the definition demonstrates the breadth and diversity of public interest reporting to give confidence to public watchdogs”.

“This close to establishing an anti-SLAPP law that is universal in scope, we must ensure it can live up to the expectations of everyone who speaks out in the public interest,” the letter says. “Only then will free expression be protected.”

Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner said: “SLAPPs threaten free speech and a free press by enabling those with deep pockets to harass, intimidate and exhaust critics with the goal of deterring public interest journalism. We welcome the work to get a workable anti-SLAPP law in place, with these small changes being vital to making that happen.”

Tackling SLAPPs is an area where national newspaper editors across the political spectrum have publicly shown agreement on multiple occasions.

As well as Viner, current and former Daily Mail editors Ted Verity and Paul Dacre, The Telegraph’s Chris Evans, Times editor Tony Gallagher, Sunday Times editor Ben Taylor and The Observer’s Paul Webster all signed the letter.

They were joined by other senior editors including Reuters editor-in-chief Alessandra Galloni, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism editor-in-chief and editor Rozina Breen and Franz Wild, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait, and The Economist editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes.

Catherine Belton, who is reporting on Russia for The Washington Post and has been subject to libel proceedings labelled a SLAPP about her book Putin’s People, added: “It’s really important that after all the crusading work by NGOs and MPs, journalists don’t end up with a law that is ultimately ineffective or worse, counterproductive, in combating SLAPPs.

“In its current form, the proposed legislation would not improve the situation for any journalist and instead more likely strengthen any claimant’s hand, as it will be near impossible to prove a claimant’s intent. This law must be urgently amended, otherwise we risk shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Alongside Belton, several other journalists who have been the victims of SLAPP lawsuits signed the letter including Guardian investigations correspondent Tom Burgis, who had a libel claim brought by a Kazakh mining giant against his book dismissed by a judge, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins, who was pursued by Russia’s failed coup leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Clare Rewcastle Brown, who received multiple threats after uncovering a corruption scandal in Malaysia.

Full list of signatories urging amendments to anti-SLAPP bill:

Editorial and media senior management

  • Rozina Breen, CEO, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ)
  • Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief, DMG Media
  • Chris Evans, Editor, The Telegraph
  • Tony Gallagher, Editor, The Times
  • Alessandra Galloni, Editor-in-Chief, Reuters
  • Isabel Hilton, Co-Chair, TBIJ
  • Ian Hislop, Editor, Private Eye
  • John Micklethwait, Editor-in-Chief, Bloomberg News
  • Zanny Minton Beddoes, Editor-in-Chief, The Economist
  • Paul Radu, Co-Executive Director, OCCRP
  • Richard Sambrook, Co-Chair, TBIJ
  • Aman Sethi, Editor-in-Chief, openDemocracy
  • Drew Sullivan, Publisher, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)
  • Ben Taylor, Editor, The Sunday Times
  • Emma Tucker, Editor-in-Chief, The Wall Street Journal
  • Ted Verity, Editor, The Daily Mail
  • Katharine Viner, Editor-in-Chief, The Guardian
  • Paul Webster, Editor, The Observer
  • Franz Wild, Editor, TBIJ

Associations, foundations and media support organisations

  • Lionel Barber, Chairman, The Wincott Foundation
  • Sarah Baxter, Director, Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting
  • Matthew Caruana Galizia, Director, The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
  • Anthony Fargo, Director, Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies
  • George Freeman, Executive Director, Media Law Resource Center
  • Alexander Papachristou, Executive Director of the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice
  • Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary, National Union of Journalists
  • Sayra Tekin, Director of Legal, News Media Association
  • Rupert Cowper-Coles, Partner and Head of Media, RPC
  • Matthew Dando, Partner and Head of Media Litigation, Wiggin LLP
  • David Hooper, Media Lawyer and writer on SLAPPs, Author, Buying Silence
  • Matthew Jury, Managing Partner, McCue Jury & Partners LLP
  • Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws KC, Director, International Bar Association’s
  • Human Rights Institute
  • Nicola Namdjou, General Counsel at Global Witness
  • Gill Phillips, Editorial Legal Consultant
  • David Price KC
  • Pia Sarma, Editorial Legal Director, Times Newspapers Ltd
  • Mark Stephens CBE, Lawyer, Co-Chair International Bar Association Human Rights
  • Committee, Trustee, Index on Censorship
  • Samantha Thompson, Media Defence Lawyer, RPC

Writers, journalists and authors

  • Catherine Belton, International investigative reporter, Washington Post, Author, Putin’s
  • People
  • Tom Bergin, Author and investigative journalist, Reuters
  • Richard Brooks, Journalist, Private Eye
  • Bill Browder, Author, financier, and Head of Global Magnitsky Justice campaign
  • Tom Burgis, Author and investigations correspondent, The Guardian
  • Paul Caruana Galizia, Reporter, Tortoise Media
  • Bill Emmott, Journalist, author, and former editor-in-chief of The Economist
  • Peter Geoghegan, Journalist and author
  • George Greenwood, Investigations Reporter, The Times
  • Eliot Higgins, Author and journalist
  • Edward Lucas, Author, European and transatlantic security consultant and fellow at the
  • Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)
  • Thomas Mayne, Researcher and writer
  • Trevor Phillips, Broadcaster, writer and chair of Index on Censorship
  • Clare Rewcastle Brown, Journalist

Publishers

  • José Borghino, Secretary General, International Publishers Association
  • Dan Conway, CEO, Publishers Association
  • Andrew Franklin, Founder and publisher, Profile Books and trustee of Index on Censorship
  • Arabella Pike, Publishing Director, HarperCollins Publishers
  • Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive, Society of Authors

Academics

  • Peter Coe, Associate Professor in Law, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham
  • John Heathershaw, Professor of International Relations, University of Exeter
  • Andrew Scott, Associate Professor, London School of Economics and Political Science
  • Ursula Smartt, Media Lawyer, Associate Professor of Law, Northeastern University London

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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