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November 26, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:48am

Carole Cadwalladr drops truth defence in Arron Banks libel battle but insists claims were in public interest

By Charlotte Tobitt

Carole Cadwalladr has insisted she will continue to defend her reporting against a libel case brought by prominent Brexiteer Arron Banks despite withdrawing the defence of truth.

Instead the Observer journalist has said she will pursue a “robust” defence on public interest grounds when the case goes to trial next year.

Cadwalladr has been ordered to pay £62,000 in costs to Banks after withdrawing her defences of truth and limitation just one day before the next hearing in the case was scheduled to take place on Thursday morning.

Banks had applied to the High Court to have both of these defences struck out.

Press Gazette understands the total costs are likely to exceed £100,000 after a case and cost management hearing to be held early next year.

Banks said on Thursday: “It’s hugely disappointing that she couldn’t just apologise months ago and draw a line under this whole episode: This was never about press freedom but the truth.”

Cadwalladr accused Leave.EU campaign donor Banks of telling lies about his relationship with Russia during a Ted Talk she made in April last year, and again in a tweet.

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In the talk, 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.”

And in a follow-up tweet in June linking to the talk, she wrote: “I say he lied about his contact with Russian govt. Because he did.”

Cadwalladr told Press Gazette she had withdrawn the truth defence because of Mr Justice Saini’s recent determination on the meaning of her words.

“He has ruled that when I said Arron Banks lied about his relationship with the Russian government, it was ‘in relation to acceptance of foreign funding’,” she said.

“But these are not words I have ever said. On the contrary, I’ve always been very clear that there is no evidence that Banks accepted Russian funding.

“I have a very robust defence based on the very strong public interest grounds of my reporting and that has not changed.”

In January this year Banks dropped the parts of his case concerning another talk in which Cadwalladr said “we know that the Russian government offered money to Arron Banks” and a tweet in which she said an investigation into possible corruption in Italian politics involving Russians was a “mirror image of Arron Banks + Russians”.

His decision to do so came after Mr Justice Saini’s ruling on the meaning of the words in question.

[Read more: Judge denies opinion claim over tweet in libel battle between Carole Cadwalladr and Arron Banks]

A statement from Cadwalladr’s legal team on Thursday said: “In a libel case, the judge decides the meaning of the words complained of. After the judgment in December last year, Arron Banks dropped effectively two-thirds of his case against me and was ordered to pay costs.

“We have had a further hearing in the case to consider the judge’s meaning as a result of which I have now dropped two out of my three defences and was ordered to pay costs, leaving the public interest defence to be argued at trial. This is very common in libel cases.

“I have a very strong robust defence based on the public interest of my reporting and this remains the case. We expect there to be a trial next year.”

This defence means arguing the statement in contention was a matter of public interest and that Cadwalladr believed it was in the public interest to publish it.

The court must make appropriate allowances for editorial judgment.

The Guardian Media Group is not covering Cadwalladr’s costs to defend the case but she has raised more than £168,000 towards her legal costs from more than 5,000 members of the public.

She told supporters on Twitter that she was “being sued for doing my job” and faced losing her home as a result.

In an earlier crowdfunding page she raised more than £300,000 from more than 10,000 people which she ringfenced for Banks’ legal costs to use if she lost the case.

Cadwalladr was earlier this month separately forced to apologise to Banks after wrongly claiming he “had been found to have broken the law” in his role as founder of the Leave.EU campaign in a now-deleted tweet.

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Picture: Reuters/Hannah McKay and Press Gazette

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