UK: Abusive SLAPP case concludes against investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr
Following a five-day defamation trial at the UK High Court, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reaffirms support for investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who is facing a vexatious defamation case brought by British businessman Arron Banks. The case could serve as a landmark test of the public interest defence, and has highlighted the urgent need for greater protections for journalists facing legal threats.
On 21 January, the High Court concluded a five-day trial in a vexatious defamation case brought by British businessman and political donor Arron Banks against investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, a laureate of RSF’s press freedom prize and many other prestigious awards. Cadwalladr has been sued on the basis of a TED talk and a corresponding tweet sharing a link to the talk, in which she alleged that Banks had lied about his relationship with the Russian government. Cadwalladr defended the claim on the basis that her reporting was done in the public interest.
“We are proud to support Carole Cadwalladr, whose courageous investigative journalism and fight back against this abusive lawsuit will have important implications for press freedom. Such attempts to isolate individual journalists and make examples of them in this way can create a serious chilling effect on public interest reporting, ultimately impacting the public’s right to information. There is an urgent need for greater solidarity in exposing and fighting back against SLAPP suits, and ensuring better protections for journalists facing legal threats in the UK and beyond,” said RSF’s Director of International Campaigns and UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.
Representatives from RSF monitored the full five-day proceedings. Throughout the case the claimant refuted claims that this lawsuit should be considered a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) – in other words, a vexatious lawsuit intended to silence Cadwalladr’s public interest reporting. RSF and a large group of free expression organisations have reiterated their expert assessment that the case meets the criteria of a SLAPP, and had called on Banks to drop the suit. In singling out Cadwalladr as an individual, Banks has effectively isolated her from the legal and financial support she would have had if sued for her reporting for the Guardian or Observer newspapers.
In the three-day cross examination that she faced from Banks’ legal team, led by William McCormick QC of Selborne Chambers, Cadwalladr gave extensive testimony regarding the journalistic process she followed in her investigation, including thorough editorial involvement, emphasising that “journalism is a team sport” and that responsibility is shared between journalists, editors, sub-editors, and the publisher – which bears the ultimate legal responsibility. Cadwalladr stated her belief that the case is a SLAPP, and gave examples of the extensive abuse and harassment she had received as a result of Banks’ claim, noting that the cross-examination also seemed deliberately intended to “shame and humiliate her.”
The pattern of abuse Cadwalladr faced has also been documented in a case study by UNESCO, which found that “55% of obvious abuse detected [as targeting] Cadwalladr occurs at the personal level. It was highly gendered and designed to hold her up to ridicule, humiliate, belittle and discredit.”
In their closing arguments, McCormick - for the claimant - repeated that his client had suffered reputational damage as the result of Cadwalladr’s comment in the TED talk, and that Banks had been “left with no choice” but to seek remedy through the court, otherwise “nothing can stop” Cadwalladr. For the defence, Gavin Millar QC of Matrix Chambers argued that Banks’ evidence did not meet the threshold for the serious harm test, and that the Section 4 public interest defence should apply in Cadwalladr’s protection.
The High Court’s decision, which is expected to follow in writing some weeks or possibly months later, has the potential to serve as a landmark test of the public interest defence. The ruling will have serious implications for journalism not only in the UK, but internationally, given the popularity of London courts as a jurisdiction for such suits, and highlights the need for greater protections for journalists facing legal threats.
The UK is ranked 33rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.