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  1. Media Law
September 21, 2023

UK’s top editors call for standalone anti-SLAPP bill

Signatories to the letter include the editors of The Sun, The Guardian, the FT and Private Eye.

By Bron Maher

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.

[Read more: UK is SLAPP tourism capital of Europe but scale of ‘iceberg problem’ not fully known]

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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.

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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.

[Read more: Kazakh mining giant drops FT libel action after judge dismissed claim against journalist’s ‘dirty money’ book]

“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:

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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.
  • Business owner/co-owner
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  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
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  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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