STATUS: Concluded – The case brought by Arron Banks against Carole Cadwalladr was initiated in July 2019, with a preliminary ruling on meaning in December 2019. The full trial was held in January 2022, and the ruling was handed down in Cadwalladr’s favour in June 2022. In February 2023, the Court of Appeal found of the three claims under appeal, two in Cadwalladr’s favour and one in Banks.
In January 2022, Carole Cadwalladr, best known for her work uncovering the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 and investigations into campaign funding around the 2016 Brexit referendum, spent five days in the Royal Courts of Justice defending herself against a libel claim brought by millionaire businessman and Leave.EU funder Arron Banks. Banks had filed a case against Cadwalladr in July 2019 regarding two tweets and two public talks she made between April and July 2019.
After a preliminary ruling in December 2019, in which the judge decided the legal meanings of the contested publications, Banks withdrew two of his claims in January 2020. The judge had found the remaining claims, statements made within a TED talk and a tweet that linked to it, to mean 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”. Cadwalladr, however, contested this interpretation, stating in an interview in 2020: “But these are not words I have ever said. On the contrary, I’ve always been very clear that there is no evidence that Banks accepted Russian funding”. Ultimately, this impacted her defence strategy as she would need to prove the truth of the ‘legal meaning’ defined by the judge. As a result, in November 2020, Cadwalladr decided to drop the ‘truth defence’ and she had to pay Banks £62,000 in costs. Much was made of this by Cadwalladr’s detractors to imply she does not believe in her own reporting. Far less widely reported was the Judge’s comments calling Bank’s interpretation of the two claims he ultimately dropped “far-fetched and divorced from the specific context in which those words were used”.
Cadwalladr would ultimately go on to win, but her three-year battle came at great personal cost and was, as she has described, akin to stepping ‘into the pages of a Kafka novel’. The judgment handed down by Justice Steyn in June 2022 was heralded as a landmark case for media freedom, as a test case for the public interest defence. However, the judge also took the unprecedented step of stating she found it “neither fair nor apt” to describe the case as a SLAPP suit. Whilst Banks has strenuously denied that he had pursued a SLAPP, and his lawyers stated during the trial that “to suggest it was issued in bad faith simply to stop her reporting is a complete fabrication”, this is not a view shared by members of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition (whose co-chairs outlined why in a guest article for the Bar Council).
Banks decided to sue Cadwalladr as an individual rather than The Observer, which published her original reporting, or TED, the publisher of her talk. It is this type of tactic that can characterise SLAPPs, not simply the merits of the claim. Isolated from institutional support and funding, Cadwalladr had to risk financial ruin and was only able to defend the case thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign. Moreover, Cadwalladr wrote on twitter after her trial that in her case 180,000 documents had been subject to forensic keyword searches, narrowed down to 20,00, before 4,000 were ultimately handed over to the other side.
Aside from the pressure caused by the legal case itself, the case against Cadwalladr highlighted how there are wider pressures at play. Legal threats and SLAPP cases can feed into broader online harassment and trolling, coordinated or otherwise. Every time there has been a development in Cadwalladr’s case, there was also an influx in online abuse against her. The pattern of abuse Cadwalladr faced has 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”. The UNESCO study concluded that “the online violence Carole Cadwalladr experienced is a feature of the enabling environment of her online legal harassment”.
On 7th February 2023, Bank’s appeal, relating to three claims, was heard at the Court of Appeal in London, presided over by President of the King’s Bench Division Dame Victoria Sharp, Lord Justice Singh and Lord Justice Warby.
Later that month, on 28th February, the appeal judgment was handed down, which found one claim in Banks’ favour and the other two in Cadwalladr’s. In her original judgment, Judge Steyn had found that Cadwalladr’s public interest defence was no longer applicable after April 2020 (when the Electoral Commission found no evidence that Banks had committed any criminal offence), but that the continued publication of the TED Talk did not cause serious harm to his reputation. The appeal judges overturned this aspect of the ruling, finding that as there was “no public interest defence (nor any other defence) in respect of that period of publication it follows that the claimant is entitled to judgment for damages to be assessed in respect of the publication of the TED Talk” after April 2020.
Notably, the appeal judgment accepts that Cadwalladr is not the publisher of the TED Talk, stating: “Although the defendant has admitted responsibility for the publication of the words complained of up to trial, it is common ground that she is not able to control what the TED organisation does. There is an issue about the extent to which she should seek to persuade it to edit the TED Talk or cease publication of the talk in its current form.”
On 1 March 2023, members of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition issued a statement reiterating their support for Carole Cadwalladr and welcoming that the majority of the appeal had been dismissed.
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