openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Arron Banks vs Carole Cadwalladr shows how badly UK is failing press freedom

Why can journalists be violently abused online, yet ‘free speech’ doesn’t protect their reporting?

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
13 January 2022, 1.31pm
Tomorrow a two-year legal battle will culminate in journalist Carole Cadwalladr facing a defamation suit from Arron Banks
Steven May / Alamy Live News

Tomorrow Carole Cadwalladr, the award-winning journalist who uncovered the Cambridge Analytica scandal, will be in court facing a defamation suit from Brexit-backing businessman Arron Banks. It’s the culmination of a legal battle that has dragged on for more than two years – and shows just how far the myth of the UK’s ‘free’ press lies from the reality of doing journalism in this country.

Banks is suing Cadwalladr because she said, in a 2019 TED talk and a subsequent tweet, that the Brexit donor had lied about his “covert” relationship with the Russian government. If she loses, Cadwalladr faces legal costs of up to £1m plus damages. Reporters Without Borders have called the case an “abusive” attempt to “silence public interest reporting”.

Whichever way the ruling goes, however, some chilling facts will remain true.

For a start, Banks chose to sue Cadwalladr personally. He has not sued the far better-resourced Guardian Media Group, which published her reporting for years; nor TED, which hosted her talk; nor the many large media outlets, including the BBC and NPR, where she made similar allegations.

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Suing journalists personally, instead of the companies that publish them, is a common tactic deployed by those seeking to shut down negative press. Not only does it drain money and morale from the most vulnerable targets, it also distracts them from doing more journalism.

openDemocracy has first-hand experience of this. During my time as editor-in-chief, our reporting on the funding of the Brexit campaign helped prompt law change, parliamentary inquiries and record fines for breaches of electoral law. It was nominated for multiple awards and became the subject of a bestselling book. Yet one of our lead reporters worried he was going to lose his house over a case that was, in the end, never pursued, but which hung over us for two years and drained precious resources.

Second, Cadwalladr has for years been the subject of vicious, misogynistic attacks online – including from Arron Banks’s own Brexit campaign, Leave.EU. Back in 2017, Leave.EU tweeted a video crudely manipulated to show her being violently assaulted. Even after hundreds of complaints, Twitter refused to take it down. After direct intervention from The Observer editor, Paul Webster, Banks’s deputy Andy Wigmore finally removed it.

He was not legally obliged to do so: unlike Banks, Cadwalladr had no recourse under the law to challenge the abusive ‘speech’ she and thousands of others had objected to.

Shouldn’t journalists in the UK be demanding better? Why aren’t they?

Maria Ressa, Nobel prize-winning journalist

Third, most of the British press has shown Cadwalladr a stunning lack of professional solidarity. With the exception of The Guardian, most coverage of her case has been disparaging. Douglas Murray has argued in The Spectator that Cadwalladr should return her Orwell Prize, even though the reporting that won her that award is not being disputed in court. Guido Fawkes has taken an obsessive interest in Cadwalladr’s alleged ‘conspiracy theories’; former BBC and GB News frontman Andrew Neil has previously disparaged her as a “mad cat woman”.

Among the many large outlets that followed her reporting for years, including The Sunday Times, the Financial Times, the BBC and Channel 4, there has largely been silence about her case.

“Shouldn’t journalists in the UK be demanding better? Why aren’t they?” the Nobel prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa, herself a target of vexatious legal claims and vicious online attacks, asked me on the phone from Manila yesterday.

If you believe the UK’s prime minister, he has journalists’ backs. “As a former journalist I am alarmed that worldwide attacks on journalists are rife and increasing,” Boris Johnson said as foreign secretary in 2017. “Freedom of expression is a universal human right and a free press underpins that right.” Johnson was in Washington extolling the virtues of a “free media” again last month.

But the truth is that the world's kleptocrats and oligarchs routinely use our courts to bully and silence journalists, and we do almost nothing to stop them. The two-year legal battle over Catherine Belton’s acclaimed book ‘Putin's People’ resulted in hefty bills and an apology from Belton – another example of how, in the words of journalist Nick Cohen, our legal system has become “a playground for bullies”.

Related story

Boris Johnson.jpg
One journalist has been arrested. A minister has attacked another on Twitter. These are not isolated incidents – and they must not stand.

It doesn’t stop there. New research by Index on Censorship shows that, while the UK is still the libel tourism capital of the world, legal threats are an increasing problem for journalists across Europe.

What can be done? The Biden administration has recently announced a new Defamation Defense Fund for journalists facing legal harassment across the world. That’s a step in the right direction, but should journalists in the UK and other so-called democracies really have to rely on limited US funds to protect themselves?

Instead of pretending that the UK is a beacon of press freedom, we need to reflect on what we can learn from long-running, costly legal sagas like this one. That starts with a full parliamentary inquiry into where and how our system is being abused, as a wide coalition of rights groups and experts have called for. It also requires a ‘filter mechanism’ so that courts can throw out vexatious claims at an early stage. Boris Johnson’s much-vaunted National Action Plan for the safety of journalists – announced last year – must be expanded to tackle legal threats and intimidation. And as Susan Coughtrie, project director at the Foreign Policy Centre, points out, the UK urgently needs to tackle the global corruption that so many of the aggressive lawsuits launched against journalists in this country seek to hide.

Arron Banks has always strongly denied any illegal Russian links and, while his Brexit campaign was fined for multiple breaches of the law, an investigation by the National Crime Agency found no evidence that further crimes had been committed. Cadwalladr does not dispute any of this and, after a judge ruled against her previous arguments of truth and limitation, is now defending herself against on the basis that her reporting was in the public interest.

“Right now, we can’t police the money spent in our elections: this is a massive problem for our democracy,” she told me. “Facebook is unregulated and our electoral laws are still hopelessly unenforceable. There was (and still is) a huge public interest in journalists raising these issues – both as a warning for us here in Britain, and for countries everywhere”.

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Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

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