UK: Court of Appeal ruling in case against Carole Cadwalladr risks chilling effect on public interest reporting
The UK Court of Appeal’s ruling partially in favour of businessman Arron Banks in his defamation case against journalist Carole Cadwalladr is disappointing and risks having a chilling effect on investigative journalism. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reiterates its support for Cadwalladr, an RSF Press Freedom Prize laureate, and calls on the UK government to do more to protect journalists from lawsuits aimed at silencing public interest reporting.
Banks’ original libel claim concerned a single sentence from a TED talk, in which Cadwalladr questioned his relationship with the Russian government, and a related tweet. In its judgement of 28 February, the Court of Appeal dismissed two of Banks’ grounds for appeal, but allowed a third which claimed the TED talk could potentially have caused Banks serious harm .
The fact Carole Cadwalladr could now have to pay damages for journalism the court acknowledges was in the public interest is deeply disappointing. Arron Banks' relentless pursuit of an individual journalist is not only a clear attempt to intimidate and discredit her personally, but also a chilling warning to other journalists of what can happen if they dare to take on the rich and powerful. The UK government must act to protect journalists against such abuse of the law.
Reacting to the decision in a Twitter thread, Cadwalladr described the case as “absurdity after absurdity” and “Kafkaesque”, and noted she had won on two out of three grounds of principle. “Most importantly, the landmark public interest ruling is intact. The judge’s findings of fact are intact,” she wrote. “To be absolutely clear: this is a minor skirmish. I won the case. The judge's ruling, on everything else, holds.”
Banks has repeatedly denied the case is vexatious and tweeted, in reaction to the appeal verdict: “Hopefully, some journalistic lessons will be learned from this episode.”
RSF representatives were in court to monitor the appellate hearing on 7 February, as well as at the five-day trial at the High Court in January 2022. In its decision of 13 June 2022, the High Court found that the TED talk, published in April 2019, was “political expression of high importance, and great public interest”, not only in the UK but worldwide - an aspect of the ruling that has not been challenged.
What Banks’ lawyers argued is that after 29 April 2020, a date on which the Electoral Commission publicly accepted there was no evidence Banks had committed a criminal offence, Cadwalladr’s public interest defence fell away, and that she should therefore pay damages from that point on.
The court acknowledged Cadwalladr could not control what the TED organisation does, but its conclusion that Banks may have been harmed by ongoing publication after 29 April 2020 exposes her to potential damages and further legal proceedings.
Though the High Court did not consider the case to be a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), RSF and the wider UK anti-SLAPP coalition have characterised it as such, because it was aimed at isolating and intimidating Cadwalladr. Banks pursued her as an individual, rather than the media outlets which published her reporting, isolating her and exposing her to extensive legal costs which many journalists would not be able to take on.
The prevalence of such cases has earned London a reputation as the “libel capital of the world” and damages the UK’s record on press freedom. The UK government has committed to introducing legislation that would crack down on SLAPPs, but has yet to commit to a timeline.
The UK is ranked 24th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index.