Award-winning journalist says comments about businessman were in the public interest
The Observer and Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr will appear in court in London next Friday to defend herself against an accusation of defamation brought by Arron Banks, the multi-millionaire businessman and outspoken backer of Brexit. The case concerns a remark made in a talk at the Ted technology conference by Cadwalladr in April 2019, and a related tweet.
In the widely viewed 15-minute talk about the pernicious effects of Facebook on the democratic electoral process, Cadwalladr spoke about the 2016 Brexit referendum and noted briefly that Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign, largely funded by £8m from Banks, the largest donation in British political history, had been found by the Electoral Commission to have broken electoral and data laws.
In two sentences Cadwalladr also noted the commission’s investigation into the source of Banks’s funding, and made a passing reference to the financier “telling lies” about what she called “his covert relationship with the Russian government”. A couple of months later, after Banks had complained about the Ted talk reference, she tweeted a further reference to Banks “lying” about his contact with the Russian government.
Banks, who was subsequently cleared of criminality in relation to the donation, after an investigation by the National Crime Agency, and who has always strongly denied any illegal Russian links – although he admits meeting Russian embassy officials on a number of occasions – has been pursuing the case against Cadwalladr for more than two years.
In a preliminary ruling in November 2019 on the meaning of Cadwalladr’s words in the talk and tweet, Mr Justice Saini concluded that an average listener would have understood that: “On more than one occasion Mr Banks told untruths about a secret relationship he had with the Russian government in relation to acceptance of foreign funding of electoral campaigns in breach of the law on such funding.”
Banks, in his legal claim, says this meaning is defamatory of him. Cadwalladr has said this is not the meaning she intended and that she had always been careful to say there was no evidence to suggest Banks had accepted any money.
Although she initially defended the claim on the basis of truth, limitation and the public interest, the defences of truth and limitation were withdrawn after Mr Justice Saini set out the meanings which he had found the Ted talk and the tweet to bear. Cadwalladr is now defending the claim against her on the basis that her reporting was in the public interest.
Cadwalladr, who has won numerous awards for her investigative reporting into the effects of big data and social media on the Brexit campaign and the election of Donald Trump, reporting which led directly to the American Federal Trade Commission imposing a record $5bn fine on Facebook, has spent much of the past two years trying to work with the threat of Banks’s suit hanging over her. If Banks wins the case, Cadwalladr may be personally liable for his costs, estimated at between £750,000 and £1m, together with any resultant damages.
The case has been monitored closely by several British investigative reporters, some of whom have had their own libel litigation problems. There has also been support for Cadwalladr from a number of press freedom groups, concerned about what they see as the potentially chilling effect of a rich individual with a high public profile like Banks being able to sue Cadwalladr, a freelance journalist, in person, but not suing the Ted organisation, which provided the platform for her talk, and on whose website it can still be viewed.
When Banks first brought his case against Cadwalladr, seven press freedom groups, among them Reporters Without Borders and Index On Censorship, called for the case to be thrown out and for the British government to defend public-interest journalism. Their open letter described the case as bearing many of the hallmarks of a so-called Slapp suit – strategic lawsuits against public participation – in which legal action will inevitably be expensive and time consuming for journalists to resist.
Paul Webster, editor of the Observer, said: “Carole’s brave reporting has given the public deep insight into the secretive ways powerful people, organisations and social media companies have sought to influence our democracies and the hidden role played by technology in using our data and shaping our politics.
“We will continue to support the rights of journalists like Carole to report independently and in the public interest.”