Journalist Catherine Belton called for the UK Government to follow through on its promise to crack down on libel threats designed to intimidate journalists as she was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list.
Other news industry figures honoured included editor-in-chief of The Lancet Richard Horton, Conde Nast Britain’s chief business officer Vanessa Kingori and former ITN news presenter John Suchet, all named Officers of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Former Financial Times Moscow correspondent Belton was among several journalists targeted by intimidating libel suits known as SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) in the past few years. Her MBE was given for services to journalism.
The lawsuits targeting Belton and her publisher Harper Collins came from a number of Russian oligarchs, most prominently Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, over the publication of her book Putin’s People. The cases were ultimately settled, with apologies and amendments made to the book.
Speaking to PA about being made an MBE in the wake of the cases, Belton said: “It’s really incredible. You couldn’t really have a greater contrast between now and last year when we were just emerging from a really bruising settlement with Roman Abramovich.”
After the New Year’s Honours were announced, Belton praised Harper Collins and its publishing director Arabella Pike, without whom she said the book “would have been pulped” because of the threats against them. Pike also worked with another former FT journalist, Tom Burgis, whose book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World was also targeted with a SLAPP. That case was dismissed by a High Court judge.
Belton said that the cases against her and Burgis, as well as a further libel case against Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who won using the public interest defence, were “just the tip of a big iceberg. The current legal system skews proceedings in favour of those with the deepest pockets, making it easy for the super-rich to intimidate journalists into silence.
“We can only hope that next year the UK Government will make good on its pledge to pass a new anti-SLAPP law to enable such cases, which are clearly aimed at intimidation, to be thrown out at an earlier stage.”
Some MPs attempted to add an anti-SLAPP amendment into the Economic Crime Bill in November but this was rejected by the Government which said it has its own plans, although these have been criticised for being too slow. Its measures could include allowing courts to throw out meritless claims more quickly and a cost cap so the threat of litigation stops being such a tool for bullying.
The Lancet editor-in-chief Dr Richard Horton was awarded an OBE for services to health and medical journalism.
He has led The Lancet since 1995 and has been praised for helping the journal to “become the premier venue for global health science” despite a number of controversies over his tenure including the publication of a paper, eventually retracted, wrongly linking the MMR vaccine with autism.
Also recognised this year is Vanessa Kingori, chief business officer at Conde Nast Britain and the first female publishing director in British Vogue’s history, for services to the media industry. She had previously been awarded an MBE in the 2016 Queen’s birthday honours list.
In her current role, Kingori leads the UK commercial teams at brands including Vogue, GQ, Wired, Vanity Fair, Glamour, Tatler, Conde Nast Traveller, House & Garden and The World of Interiors.
Classic FM presenter and ITN journalist and newsreader of more than 30 years John Suchet has also received an OBE for services to journalism and charity. He is an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society alongside his wife, who has the disease.
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