In a significant victory for public-interest reporting, the High Court in London has dismissed the claim that journalist Carole Cadwalladr defamed businessman and pro-Brexit campaign founder Arron Banks.
ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director Quinn McKew welcomed the judgement, and its endorsement of press freedom. “The decision of the High Court sends a strong message to those who use abusive litigation to silence investigative journalism, and to block public interest information from reaching the wider population. People have the right to know about how influential people and lobbyists are shaping policy and their lives and this judgement is a resounding endorsement of the hard work so many journalists undertake on our behalf.”
The case was viewed by many activists as pivotal to the future of press freedom in the UK. Banks sued Cadwalladr for libel in connection with a 2019 TED Talk, ‘Facebook’s Role in Brexit – and the Threat to Democracy’ and a Twitter post linking to the TED Talk. Cadwalladr had argued that Banks was not being transparent about his relationship with the Russian government. She and her legal team’s success relied on a strong public interest defence. The verdict emphasised that in the TED Talk, Cadwalladr ‘made a serious contribution to the discussion of a subject that was of real and abiding public interest at the time of publication. Moreover, the words complained of were themselves on an important matter of public interest.’
Media freedom under threat from rising lawsuits
While the verdict stipulated that the case was a clear defamation issue, ARTICLE 19 considers it a clear case of strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPPs), which have been on rise in recent years. Several law firms have developed aggressive tactics to facilitate cases on behalf of their wealthy clients, contributing to the problem. Rich and powerful people take advantage of claimant-friendly defamation laws in the UK and the steep cost of legal action to file lawsuits and threaten their critics. ‘London Calling’, an in-depth research conducted by ARTICLE 19 and Foreign Policy Centre, takes a closer look at the several most emblematic SLAPP cases brought to the London High Court and the challenges journalists who have been sued face.
The free expression and human rights community has repeatedly voiced alarm about the rise of the use of SLAPPs, which routinely call for six-figure settlement costs. If Banks, who founded the Leave.EU campaign, had won the case, Cadwalladr would have been forced to pay somewhere between £750,000 and £1m.
Today’s decision should serve as another incentive for the Government to introduce comprehensive anti-SLAPP measures in the country. ARTICLE 19 urges the Ministry of Justice to launch a consultation with a view to introducing such an anti-SLAPP law in the next Parliamentary session. Any such law should include an early dismissal mechanism to filter out SLAPPs at the earliest possible point in proceedings, along with robust sanctions to deter the use of this type of litigation. Subsequently, courts should be empowered to issue security for costs and, where necessary, civil restraint orders against those pursuing SLAPPs.
ARTICLE 19 has previously called for robust measures to curb SLAPPs, including an early dismissal and decriminalisation of defamation. Our regional report discusses key patterns in cases from 11 countries across Europe, in particular severe imbalance of power between the defendant and the claimant. We analyse domestic legislation and applicable international standards as well as put forward recommendations.
In late April, ARTICLE 19 and its partners of The Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) welcomed the European Union initiative to tackle lawsuits designed to silence critical speech, shut down accountability, and undermine democratic rights. Together with CASE, we repeatedly urged the UK government to prioritise legislative reforms to protect journalists and others working in the public interest. “Our democracy relies on the ability to hold power to account,” the coalition stated.