Longer online version; see re-sub-edited PDF
26 June 2022 see update below

Arron Banks loses libel case against Carole Cadwalladr

ARRON BANKS, multimillionaire Brexiteer and a funder of the Leave.EU campaign, on 13 June lost his libel case against freelance journalist and Guardian contributor Carole Cadwalladr. The court held that Cadwalladr had successfully established a public interest defence under the Defamation Act 2013 in reporting on Banks's connections with the Russian state. But today, 24 June, Banks sought permission to appeal.

Carole Cadwalladr at TED

Carole Cadwalladr speaking at TED on 15 April 2019 in Vancouver, BC, Canada

The case centred on Cadwalladr alleging that Banks had lied about his connections with the Russian state. She did so in a TED Technology Talk on 15 April 2019 and a Tweet on 24 June 2019 about his objections to that.

In her written judgment, Mrs Justice Steyn said that Cadwalladr had "reasonable grounds to believe that her intended meaning was true". At the time she made the assertions in 2020 Leave.EU was under renewed investigation by the Electoral Commission - one of several investigations, in the first of which it was fined £66,000. The relevant investigation ended without finding evidence of wrongdoing relevant to this case. On 29 April 2020 the Commission, Banks an others issued a joint statement to that effect.

Mrs Justice Steyn said that "it is neither fair nor apt to describe this as a SLAPP suit". But Observer editor Paul Webster and the Guardian News and Media editor-in-chief Katharine Viner described the case as "an example of a powerful wealthy person targeting an individual journalist for their work." Legal costs in the case are estimated at between £750,000 and £1 million.

A SLAPP is a "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation". We see an increasing trend of the very wealthy bringing often-meritless legal actions - and appeals - against journalists who embarrass them. Fighting these actions is often just too costly.

Banks immediately said he was planning to appeal the judgment. Some commentators have noted that it was a narrow win for Cadwalladr. The court held that her publication was justified on public interest grounds while the Electoral Commission investigation was under way; and that the "claimant has failed to prove that the publication of the TED Talk from 29 April 2020 caused and/or is likely to cause serious harm to his reputation".

Ramifications

One case that is likely to be impacted by this one is that of Ware vs. French, in which a London Freelance Branch member is being sued by another journalist for libel. The public interest defence is expected to play a part in that case too. It is due in court in November.

SLAPPs are on the agenda in the Republic of Ireland as well. Back in March, Justice Minister Helen McEntee pledged to bring before the Dáil (parliament) legislation to reform Ireland's current Defamation Act. This would include provisions to make it much easier for judges to throw out meritless or vexatious SLAPPs very early on in the proceedings, before those on the receiving end of them can be financially ruined.

Other proposed changes to the Republic's Defamation Act include a greater rôle for mediation before cases go to court. The proposals come amid alarm at Dublin developing into a "libel capital", with litigants taking advantage of the fact that it's been a long time since the nation's defamation laws were last updated.

The Irish Examiner reports that public sector broadcaster RTÉ has been on the receiving end of 29 legal actions for defamation in the six years up to June, with a "sharp uptick" in libel actions against RTÉ within the past year.

At the late June launch of the Irish Press Council and Ombudsman's annual report, the Press Council was reported by the Irish Examiner to welcome McEntee's planned defamation law reform package, urging her to "carry it through" sooner rather than later.


26 June 2022

Later on 24 June, Arron Banks was granted leave to appeal on one ground out of the five he sought. That one is the finding that the "serious harm" test specified in the Defamation Act 2013 needed to be determined again from the time of the Electoral Commission statement on 29 April 2020. This is very similar to the ground hinted at above

The first effect, of course, is that Carole Carole Cadwalladr must raise funds to defend the appeal. See her existing fundraising page below. This is, Mrs Justice Steyn's ruling notwithstanding, remarkably similar to how SLAPPs operate. Only after Banks loses the appeal can Cadwalladr try to recover costs from him.

The second effect that comes to mind is that if Banks wins he is likely to demand that the TED talk video is taken down - and possibly the Tweet as well.

As far as we know this would be the first time that the relevant provision of the 2013 Act is tested in law. Banks may yet make a further application to appeal on the other four grounds.

  • 18 July 2022 We corrected Paul Webster's job title.