The rich and powerful continue to threaten public watchdogs investigating abuses of power with lengthy and costly lawsuits. They do so to evade public scrutiny, stifle debate on public matters and force their critics into silence. Although the use of SLAPPs [strategic lawsuits against public participation] has proliferated globally in recent years, the United Kingdom has been identified as a jurisdiction of particular concern.
A new report published by ARTICLE 19 and the Foreign Policy Centre examines the growing threat of legal intimidation emerging from the United Kingdom against journalists and media outlets across the world and elaborates on the dire impact of such vexatious lawsuits on transparency, accountability and civil society at large. ‘London Calling’ research takes a closer look at the several most emblematic SLAPP cases brought to the London High Court, including lawsuits against investigative journalists Catherine Belton, Tom Burgis and Carole Cadwalladr, and discusses challenges they face in defending themselves.
Although the prime intention may not be to file a lawsuit, the severe imbalance of power between the plaintiffs and the potential defendants means that the mere threat of litigation may have a chilling effect on media outlets and force them to self-censor. The process is a punishment itself, regardless of its outcome. Drawn-out legal proceedings are designed to either block or postpone a publication, as well as to drain the target financially and eventually force them to cave in under growing pressure. An unlikely win in the courtroom usually bears a resemblance to a pyrrhic victory due to the level of resources (including time and money) put into the defense, resources that cannot be reclaimed.
In a welcome step, in March 2022 the UK Government recognised the issue of SLAPPs, and its impact, by launching a consultation on potential areas for reform. The report concludes that robust anti-SLAPP legislative measures should encompass an early dismissal of abusive claims, deterrents against the use of SLAPPs, and see to it that the cost to defend a case are kept to a minimum.
The report was launched at the Frontline Club and online on Monday 25th April with the following speakers: Clare Rewcastle Brown, independent journalist and founder of The Sarawak Report; Paul Caruana Galizia, reporter at Tortoise Media and co-founder of The Daphne Foundation; Peter Geoghegan, Editor-in-Chief at openDemocracy and author of Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics; Susan Coughtrie, Project Director at the Foreign Policy Centre and co-chair of UK anti-SLAPP coalition; Charlie Holt, Lawyer, Campaigns Advisor at English PEN and co-chair of UK anti-SLAPP coalition; Caroline Kean, Media Defence Lawyer and Founder of law firm Wiggin; and Chair: Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19. You can watch the discussion here.