More than 60 editors, reporters and lawyers representing many of the UK’s most influential publishers have signed a letter calling for the Government to promise a standalone anti-SLAPP bill in November’s King’s Speech.
Addressed to the justice secretary, the letter said it is “the last opportunity” to address abuse of the courts before an expected election next year.
Signatories included Mirror editor Alison Phillips, Telegraph editor Chris Evans, The Guardian’s Katharine Viner, The Sun’s Victoria Newton, The Observer’s Paul Webster, the FT’s Roula Khalaf, Tony Gallagher and Ben Taylor at The Times and Sunday Times, and Oly Duff at the i.
They were joined by editors from Bloomberg, Private Eye, Prospect, The Economist, Tortoise, Open Democracy, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and ITN chief executive Rachel Corp, among others.
June amendment to Economic Crime Bill ‘does not go far enough’
SLAPPs, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, are vexatious lawsuits brought by the wealthy to punish or prevent the publication of material they dislike, ostensibly on claims of defamation or privacy infringement.
Although the Government committed last year to giving courts powers to prevent abuse of the legal system, the signatories said they “remain concerned by the lack of meaningful progress” since the announcement.
In June the Government amended the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill to make it harder to use the courts to prevent coverage of alleged economic crimes, which the government said accounted for 70% of SLAPPs.
However the letter said the amendment “does not go far enough as it only covers claims relating to the ‘public interest in protecting society from economic crimes’.
“It also introduces an unnecessary element of uncertainty by making the operation of the law contingent on the belief of the defendant and the perceived purpose of the filer.”
The signatories argued that several previous high-profile SLAPPs would not have been prevented by the amendment, including those targeting Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins and Kleptopia author and investigative journalist Tom Burgis.
They said it also would not have stopped a SLAPP brought against Nina Cresswell, a writer sued for defamation by a man who sexually assaulted her.
“Cases like these demonstrate the need for an anti-SLAPP bill that protects everyone speaking out,” the letter said.
According to Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer, the Ministry for Justice has “committed to bringing forward legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows”.
But the letter added: “There is no reason why a standalone Anti-SLAPP Bill shouldn’t be included in the King’s Speech.” It pointed to a model anti-SLAPP bill published by the Anti-SLAPP Coalition last year. Governments traditionally use the monarch’s speech at the opening of each Parliament to lay out their legislative priorities for the coming year.
“Only with the fulfilment of a universally applicable law will the Government’s commitment be realised,” the letter said.
The Anti-SLAPP Coalition’s model law differs from current legislation by introducing additional legal tests that a judge may administer before permitting a lawsuit to go ahead. These include a test for the “likelihood” of a suit’s success, rather than the “realistic” prospect that it might succeed, the addition of a three-part test to identify whether a suit has the hallmarks of a SLAPP, and another test aiming to check whether a lawsuit is abusive.
The letter added: “This would be the last opportunity to realise the commitment before the expected general election. Addressing this issue has broad public and political support and represents a significant opportunity to protect free speech and shield British courts from abuse.”
Earlier this month Frazer announced in an op-ed for Press Gazette that the Government has launched a task force to deal with the rise of SLAPPs.
Full list of signatories backing Anti-SLAPP Bill call:
- Rachel Corp, chief executive, ITN
- Alison Phillips, editor, Daily Mirror
- Chris Evans, editor, Daily Telegraph
- Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief, The Guardian
- Victoria Newton, editor-in-chief, The Sun
- Paul Webster, editor, The Observer
- Roula Khalaf, editor, Financial Times
- Tony Gallagher, editor, The Times
- Ben Taylor, editor, The Sunday Times
- John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief, Bloomberg
- Ian Hislop, editor, Private Eye
- Alan Rusbridger, editor, Prospect Magazine
- Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief, The Economist
- Julian Richards, managing editor, openDemocracy
- Oliver Duff, editor-in-chief, i
- Rozina Breen, chief executive, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ)
- Drew Sullivan, co-founder, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)
- Paul Radu, co-founder, OCCRP
- Eliot Higgins, founder, Bellingcat
- James Harding, founder and editor, Tortoise
- Franz Wild, editor, TBIJ
- Joanna Prior, chief executive, Pan Macmillan
- Arabella Pike, publishing director, HarperCollins UK
- Dan Conway, chief executive, Publishers Association
- José Borghino, secretary general, International Publishers Association
- Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary, National Union of Journalists (NUJ)
- Sayra Tekin, director of legal, News Media Association (NMA)
- Dawn Alford, executive director, Society of Editors
- Gill Phillips, editorial legal consultant, Guardian News & Media
- Pia Sarma, editorial legal director, Times Newspapers Ltd
- Adam Cannon, director of legal, NGN
- Sarah Baxter, director, Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting
- Rachel Oldroyd, deputy investigations editor, The Guardian
- Juliette Garside, deputy business editor, The Guardian
- Stewart Kirkpatrick, head of impact, openDemocracy
- Chrissie Giles, deputy editor, TBIJ
- Richard Sambrook, co-chair of the board, TBIJ
- Isabel Hilton, co-chair of the board, TBIJ
- Mark Stephens CBE, partner, Howard Kennedy LLP
- Matthew Jury, managing partner, McCue Jury and Partners
- Caroline Kean, consultant partner, Wiggin
- David Price KC
- Rupert Cowper-Coles, partner, RPC
- Paul Caruana Galizia, reporter, Tortoise
- Oliver Bullough, journalist and author
- Peter Geoghegan, journalist and author
- Carole Cadwalladr, journalist, The Observer
- Catherine Belton, journalist and author of Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the west
- Richard Brooks, journalist, Private Eye
- Meirion Jones, investigative journalist
- Sean O’Neill, senior writer, The Times
- George Greenwood, investigations reporter, The Times
- Clare Rewcastle Brown, investigative journalist and founder, The Sarawak Report
- Nina Cresswell, writer and journalist
- Matthew Caruana Galizia, director, The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
- Jodie Ginsberg, president, Committee to Protect Journalists
- Alexander Papachristou, dxecutive director, Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice
- Zelda Perkins, co-founder, Can’t Buy My Silence campaign to ban the misuse of NDAs
- Dr Julie Macfarlane, co-founder, Can’t Buy My Silence campaign to ban the misuse of NDAs
- James Nixey, director, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House
- Edward Lucas, author, European and transatlantic security consultant and fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)
- John Heathershaw, professor of international relations, University of Exeter
- Dr Tena Prelec, research associate, LSEE Research on SEE, LSE
- Dr Peter Coe, associate professor in law, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham
- Thomas Mayne, research fellow, University of Oxford
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