The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition calls on all parties to not turn this snap election into a SLAPP election

Jul 3, 2024 | News

The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition is deeply worried by the number of legal threats that have been made during the election campaign following the 22 May announcement for a 4 July General Election. While elections are moments of heightened stakes and scrutiny, politicians and others connected to political parties should not resort to legal threats to counter negative publicity or media reporting in the public interest. 

The announcement of the election spelled the end of the Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill (SLAPP Bill) brought by Wayne David MP. The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition had hoped that the broad political support towards taking action on SLAPPs would also lead to a change in the cultural norms around the use of legal threats to target public interest speech. 

However, a number of the threats made over the last few weeks give cause for alarm: 

1, The press have reported that a number of people connected to or affiliated with political parties are being investigated by the police or the Gambling Commission for making bets related to the scheduling of the General Election. A former Tory candidate, Laura Saunders is one of the individuals being investigated by the Gambling Commission after the BBC broke the story alleging that she had placed a bet related to the timing of the election. On Thursday 20 June, it was reported that Saunders is considering legal action against the BBC. In a statement made through her solicitor, Saunders stated: “The publication of the BBC’s story is premature and is a clear infringement of Ms Saunders’ privacy rights. She is considering legal action against the BBC and any other publishers who infringe her privacy rights.” This threat appears to be directed at public interest reporting that has already taken place, which could dissuade others from following up on the original BBC story. 

2, On Sunday 23 June, The Mail on Sunday published an article on Nigel Farage, the leader of Reform UK with the headline “President Zelensky says Nigel Farage ‘has been infected by the virus of Putinism’ as Rishi Sunak blasts ‘completely wrong’ Reform leader for saying West provoked Ukraine war”. The piece analysed the response to Farage’s interview on BBC’s panorama related to the ongoing war in Ukraine. The same day, Nigel Farage tweeted, under the title “election interference alert”, that “Today’s Mail on Sunday claimed President Zelensky said that I was personally infected with Putinism. This is totally untrue and I have instructed Carter Ruck to deal with it.” In a further tweet, he stated “That a UK newspaper group is actively collaborating with the Kremlin to protect their dying Conservative party is an absolute scandal.”

3, On 31 June, The Sunday National reported on the legal threat they received from the Labour Party after speaking to a senior party official regarding reports that alleged “a senior Labour figure had been reported to Police Scotland for alleged breaches of electoral law.” Shortly afterwards they received an email “marked in all caps: ‘URGENT: WARNING OF LEGAL ACTION’”, which included a deadline within which to respond, as well as a suggestion that the newspaper should delay publication “so that an interim interdict – an official legal instruction to block us from publishing – could be considered.” The legal letter also defined the potential article as “grossly defamatory”, while also stating that publishing it would be in breach of election law. After Police Scotland confirmed that no further action was to be taken in respect to the original complaint, The National decided against running the article. However, they had already incurred significant costs seeking legal advice.

Other legal threats have been made public, which, while not directly related to the election, also signify a worrying trend towards politicians or political parties using legal threats to counter unwanted press and public attention. 

4, Much of Keir Starmer’s election campaign has been framed around change, including how much the Labour Party itself has changed under his leadership. For instance, Starmer has pointed to his commitment to investigate allegations of antisemitism and racism within the Labour Party, including through the commissioning of the independent report by Martin Forde KC. However, on 20 June 2024, The Independent reported that Martin Forde KC had been sent a legal letter by lawyers representing the party. It referred to an interview Forde gave to Al Jazeera in 2023, which criticised the party’s progress against the recommendations he made. According to The Independent, which has seen it, the letter accused Forde of “acting against the party’s interests” before “advising him that it was ‘considering all of its options’.” While jurisdictional hurdles would make it unlikely that the party could bring defamation proceedings, this is an inappropriate and disproportionate way to respond to legitimate criticism made by a leading expert and the author of the report in question. 

While the UK has been a central player in the rise of SLAPPs in Europe, it has been largely insulated from a trend seen in some other European countries of politicians and political parties using legal threats to settle grievances or counter negative press – Nadhim Zahawi’s threat against Dan Neidle being one of the exceptions. 

The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition calls on every actor involved in the election to refrain from threatening legal action based on public interest speech related to political parties, election campaigns or the election itself. We also reiterate our calls for the incoming Government to prioritise stamping out SLAPPs by bringing forward a SLAPP Bill at the earliest opportunity.