Journalist Carole Cadwalladr has told the High Court she “did not think I was saying anything controversial” about Brexit donor Arron Banks in the talk over which he is suing her for libel.
Banks took issue with Cadwalladr stating in a 2019 Ted talk: “And I’m not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government.”
He has also sued her over a tweet in which she repeated the same allegation and shared a link to the talk.
However Cadwalladr has argued the same claims had already been made repeatedly in the press, including multiple times in her own reporting in The Observer.
She said her inclusion of the line about Banks was based on her own “rigorous reporting” over the course of two-and-a-half years “and in the light of multiple investigations opened by the UK authorities” such as the National Crime Agency, which later found no evidence he broke the law.
Banks has told the court his relationship with the Russians in the period before the EU referendum amounted to a long boozy lunch and a brief meeting over a cup of tea with the Russian ambassador, with a further lunch following several months after.
However he had at one time only admitted to having one meeting with the Russian embassy. Evidence of multiple meetings with Russian officials was first revealed in emails reported on by The Sunday Times and The Observer in June 2018.
In her witness statement, Cadwalladr said: “It did not at any time occur to me to send a right-of-reply to [Banks] in the context of the Ted talk. I was reporting nothing new. I had said every fact in my talk many times before.”
She later added: “I would never make a new allegation in an article without first going to the individual concerned for comment. But I was not breaking news at a Ted conference. There was no new allegation.”
Cadwalladr said she would not have used the terminology she did in the Ted talk if Banks “had complained about my presentation of the facts in the Observer articles or in interviews or had sought to correct me”.
In November 2018, Banks’s lawyers wrote to The Observer complaining about references to Banks in an article Cadwalladr had written about former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. However they “did not complain about any of the public statements I had made previously in which I claimed [Banks] lied about his visits to the Russian Embassy,” Cadwalladr said.
“I took this to be confirmation that he did not dispute lying, otherwise he would have raised it in that letter, not to mention on the numerous previous occasions when I had offered him a right to reply.”
Cadwalladr pointed out that publications including The Sunday Times, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Vanity Fair have all reported on the meetings. She said they were also a matter of parliamentary record from Banks’s appearance before the DCMS Select Committee.
A New Yorker article published in March 2019 “went much further than I ever had” in suggesting Banks “may have been an agent or asset of the Russians,” Cadwalladr told the court.
She said she did not believe Banks had threatened legal action over this allegation or the “implication throughout the piece that Russian money may have funded the Leave campaign”, whether against the publication or the journalist, a British citizen living in the UK.
In June 2018 Cadwalladr gave an interview on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show in which she said Banks had “lied previously about his contact with the Russian Embassy”.
She told the programme: “If I was faced with massive evidence that I had been lying to and misleading the public for two years – and I think I can say that now because Arron has admitted that now that he had lied about that… he said in Parliament that there were three meetings so there is absolutely no doubt and Arron has admitted that now.”
Cadwalladr pointed out: “This was a very similar statement to the one I made in the Ted talk and which has led to this claim but [Banks] did not complain about what I said on this show which was broadcast to a large BBC audience.”
A month later, Cadwalladr appeared on Fresh Air, a programme on US National Public Radio (NPR) which claims to have 8.5m weekly listeners, in which she again “claimed that [Banks] had been lying about his relationship with the Russian government – the claim that I made almost a year later in my Ted talk. I also raised the question of why he was lying”.
In her witness statement, Cadwalladr said: “Accordingly, it did not even occur to me that almost a year later, [Banks] would object to my words. He had acknowledged to Parliament that there was more than one meeting. He accepted therefore that he had lied.”
Banks’s legal team has argued that although Cadwalladr had “written inaccurately” about him over the preceding two years, the Ted talk “was a different order of magnitude in terms of audience and made the outright allegation that he had lied about a covert relationship with the Russian Government…”
They also said that emails between Cadwalladr and Banks between March 2017 and late 2018 show she “never asked him to respond to an allegation that he had lied about the number or nature of the meetings with the Russian Ambassador (let alone in the context of a covert relationship, still less, one in relation to illegal funding of the Brexit referendum)”.
Cadwalladr is using the public interest defence to fight the case, arguing that it was right for her to investigate and pose questions about Banks’s alleged Russian connections. This was in the context, she said, of multiple MPs and experts raising concerns over Russian interference in British politics, and many unanswered questions including in publications such as the Financial Times relating to the source of Banks’s wealth.
Cadwalladr said: “I believed that there was the highest public interest in speaking out about these matters and particularly so in an international context.”
Numerous press freedom and freedom of expression groups have raised concerns that the case is a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation), meaning a libel action brought with the intention of silencing its target – especially when used against an individual journalist rather than their publisher.
Cadwalladr told the court she believed Banks’s legal action “seemed to be an attempt… to stifle the distribution of a documentary and stymie my investigation into [his] political activities.
“It is my belief that this legal action potentially shuts down journalists’ participation in public life,” she said, adding that she did not believe there had been any journalistic investigations into Banks’s business activities since the legal claim was filed.
Banks has denied he is pursuing a SLAPP suit, telling the court: “I was not sure how else I was expected to correct the record and I certainly cannot do so if she insists on being able to repeat false claims.”
The trial continues.
Picture: Reuters/Hannah McKay and Press Gazette
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