Journalist Carole Cadwalladr gives evidence as she defends her reporting on multimillionaire Brexit backer
Legal affairs correspondent
The Observer and Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr has told a court she believes the multimillionaire Brexit backer Arron Banks may have been “used and exploited” by the Russian government, as she defended her reporting.
Banks, who funded the Leave.EU campaign group, is suing Cadwalladr for defamation over two instances in which she said the businessman was lying about his relationship with the Russian state.
A judge previously ruled that the meaning of the remarks, made by the journalist at the Ted technology conference and in a related tweet, was that Banks lied about a secret relationship with the Russian government “in relation to acceptance of foreign funding of electoral campaigns in breach of the law on such funding”.
Cadawalladr has said that she did not intend to imply that Banks had lied about receiving money from Russia, only about the extent of his contacts with Russia. She is relying on the defence that her reporting was in the public interest.
Giving evidence about her reporting at the high court in central London on Monday, Cadwalladr said: “Reflecting upon the evidence I thought it was possible he was used and exploited by the Russian government.”
In her written evidence statement, she said she had obtained two intelligence files from an organisation contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation in Europe on behalf of a government agency, one file of which raised concerns about Banks’s Russian wife.
Cadwalladr said the file claimed Katya Banks had entered Britain on a passport sequentially numbered to the passport of Katia Zatuliveter, a woman MI5 had claimed was a Russian spy and who had had an affair with the Portsmouth MP, Mike Hancock. Katya Banks was also alleged to have had a relationship with Hancock.
The significance of the sequential numbers, according to Cadwalladr, was that the open-source intelligence organisation Bellingcat, while examining the 2018 novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, had identified two suspects in CCTV photos as Russian intelligence officers partly through evidence that the men’s passport numbers were only separated by three digits and had therefore been issued at nearly the same time.
Cadwalladr said in her witness statement: “I found the suggestion that Katya Banks was linked in some way to Russian intelligence potentially credible. I also knew that the Kremlin had a track record in channelling money and influence operations via the wives of oligarchs. A specialist Russian investigator told me that they ‘always look at the wives’.”
She said the other intelligence file detailed allegations of Arron Banks’s involvement in organised crime in South Africa, including money laundering and cigarette and diamond smuggling. Cadwalladr added that she was contacted by Banks’s former business partner in South Africa, Chris Kimber, who had owned diamond mines with the claimant and who said Banks had negotiations with Russian business people about investing in the mines, including from Russian state-owned firms.
William McCormick QC, representing Banks, said Cadawalladr should have explicitly stated in all her reporting that there was no evidence of Banks being in receipt of Russian money but had failed to do so.
Earlier, Banks, giving evidence, described Cadwalladr’s reporting as “hysterical”, claiming she was motivated by personal animus against him and dealing with conspiracy theories against him.
The trial continues.