Former cabinet minister David Davis has warned that so-called SLAPP libel actions are having a seriously chilling effect on UK journalism.
He used the example of the Putin’s People libel action brought by Russian oligarchs against ex-FT journalist Catherine Belton which left her with a £1.5m costs bill.
The ex-Conservative Party chairman and Brexit Secretary said one UK news outlet is so scared of being sued that it refuses to cover Russian oligarchs at all.
Davis (pictured) said: “Some newspapers hesitate to cover certain topics, such as the influence of Russian oligarchs, for fear of costly litigation. In at least one case I know, the publication avoids the subject outright.”
This is because, he said, of a legal system that means people with “nefarious intentions” and “exceptionally deep pockets” can “threaten, intimidate and put the fear of God into British journalists, citizens, officials and media organisations”.
This meant, he said, journalists are afraid of what have become known as strategic litigation against public participation, or SLAPP.
Several Russian oligarchs, most prominently Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, recently pursued former Financial Times Moscow correspondent Belton and publisher HarperCollins over her book Putin’s People. The cases were all settled with apologies and amendments made to the book.
According to Davis, the “legal onslaught” cost Belton alone £1.5m, which would have risen if settlements had not been reached.
Another Financial Times journalist, investigations correspondent Tom Burgis, is currently being sued by the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation over his book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World.
Davis pointed out that the corporation has been under investigation by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office for fraud, bribery and corruption since 2013 and that two would-be witnesses and former employees were found dead on the same day in 2015, with their deaths now being investigated by the FBI.
Davis said: “Amazingly, when the FT reported the FBI’s action, ENRC then took action against that paper. Are we now to understand that journalists are not allowed to publicly report the deaths of witnesses for fear that someone may deduce that they were murdered by a company like ENRC?”
Davis added that a former Serious Fraud Office controller was sued by the ENRC for allegedly leaking information to Burgis, and that the group’s lawyer described in court a meeting between the pair that they “had gone to extreme lengths to keep secret”.
“It was organised over an encrypted messaging service and held in an underground car park with no telephone signal,” he said. “So the only explanation for how ENRC’s lawyer had details of this clandestine meeting would be if Burgis, Gibson or both were being actively watched.
“This is a private company putting a journalist under aggressive surveillance,” he said, adding this “is immoral, it is intimidating and it is unethical”.
Press freedom organisations have also labelled as SLAPP the High Court libel trial in which Brexit donor Arron Banks is pursuing freelance journalist Carole Cadwalladr over one line in a Ted talk and one tweet. The case, which is now awaiting a judgment, is costing Cadwalladr hundreds of thousands of pounds and she has had to crowdfund, fearing she may lose her home.
Davis noted that objections to SLAPP cases are “not just about the financial costs; these actions take an emotional toll on those who are targeted”.
Davis told his fellow MPs: “This is lawfare—lawfare against British freedom of speech, lawfare against the freedom of the press, and lawfare against justice for our citizens.
“Lawfare is the misuse of legal systems and principles by extraordinarily rich individuals and organisations to destroy their critics and opponents. In many cases, our reporters face reputational and financial ruin in defending themselves from these malevolent cases; even if they win, the expense and impact are huge. The chilling effect on a free press is extraordinary.”
Davis said SLAPP cases are “not about legitimate recourse against journalists” but rather “shutting down scrutiny through fear”.
He suggested the Government should consider passing a law offering some protection to journalists, pointing out that 31 US states have passed anti-SLAPP laws “in some cases allowing journalists and media organisations to file motions to dismiss such suits at an early stage on the grounds that the case involves protected speech on a matter of public interest”.
He said: “It is not wrong to sue journalists — sometimes they make serious mistakes or behave maliciously — but billionaires and multimillionaires should not be able to use the law to shut down legitimate criticism.
“Even if someone defends their case successfully, in this day and age they face material costs so huge that they will further deter others from following a story, and they can even destroy lives.”
Several other MPs shared similar concerns. Labour’s Liam Byrne, who suggested judges should be able to dismiss a case designated as a SLAPP, said the dictum “follow the money” is being “smothered, suffocated and strangled in courts by allies, associates and friends of President Putin”.
Byrne added: “Arron Banks did not go for The Guardian or The Observer; he went for Carole Cadwalladr, and took aim at a single sentence in her Ted talk. As we have heard, ENRC went after Tom Burgis personally after he flagged up the information that witnesses to its crimes were being murdered.”
He also pointed out Paul Radu, a Romanian journalist and co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, is being sued in the English courts by Azerbaijani politicians.
“We have to ask: why are powerful interests from far away suing journalists who are not English and do not write for English titles?” Byrne said. “Why are they being sued in English courts? Surely that must tell us that something in our country is going badly wrong.”
He also said Dan McCrum, Press Gazette’s journalist of the year 2020, was subject to “online abuse, hacking, electronic eavesdropping and physical surveillance” for his Wirecard investigation while the allegations relating to Belton were “ludicrously exaggerated”.
Replying for the Government, justice minister James Cartlidge said Royal Courts of Justice statistics have showed there were 152 defamation cases in the High Court in 2020 “in line with the average number for the past decade”.
“That suggests we must not be premature in launching a response to SLAPPs but instead grow our evidence base through careful monitoring…” he said.
He said the Ministry of Justice is monitoring SLAPP threats against journalists and announced that the UK will be a member of the Council of Europe’s inaugural working group on SLAPPs with an anti-SLAPP draft recommendation for member states due in December 2023.
Cartlidge added: “I will be giving SLAPPs in UK courts urgent consideration. I want to make it clear that the Government are committed to a robust defence of transparency and freedom of speech. We will not tolerate anything that risks tarnishing the integrity of our judicial and legal profession.”
Picture: Parliament TV