The editor of the Observer has joined with press freedom campaigners to call for “robust” action against the use of lawsuits to “silence and intimidate” journalism in the public interest.
It comes as prominent Brexit campaigner Arron Banks (pictured, left) has filed a defamation suit against Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr over claims she made in two speeches that he was offered money by the Russian Government and lied about his relationship with the regime.
Banks, who co-founded the campaign group Leave.EU, rejects the claims.
Cadwalladr (pictured, right) has said Banks’ is targeting her in an attempt to “personalise” the issue, despite the allegations having been published in the Sunday Times and New York Times, and heard in Parliament.
She told Press Gazette the businessman is “trying to use litigation as a weapon against me to harass me and stop me doing journalism”.
In an open letter published in the Observer yesterday, the newspaper’s editor Paul Webster and representatives from organisations including Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom issued a joint call for action to tackle “strategic litigation against public participation” (SLAPP) lawsuits.
They said Cadwalladr’s investigations into the impact of technology misuse on democracy, including in the 2016 EU Referendum, has “stimulated a global debate about the power of online platforms to influence the behaviour of citizens, and raised important questions about the regulation of digital technology”.
The letter added that Banks’ legal claim is “another example of a wealthy individual appearing to abuse the law in an attempt to silence a journalist and distract from these issues being discussed by politicians, the media and the public at a critical time in the life of our democracy”.
The letter called on Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to consider new legislation that would “prevent the abuse of defamation law to silence public interest investigative reporting”.
They also asked both Secretaries of State to take a public stance in support of Cadwalladr and public interest and investigative journalism in general.
Also supporting the letter were four family members of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was assassinated by a car bomb near her home in October 2017.
The letter noted that SLAPP lawsuits were used against Caruana Galizia, who faced 42 civil libel suits at the time of her death.
Many of those were issued by UK legal firms acting for foreign banks and wealthy individuals, the press freedom campaigners claimed, and 27 remain open today.
Similar legal threats have been deployed against other Maltese news organisations including investigative journalism website Shift News, whose editor Caroline Muscat also signed the letter.
“Such legal threats are designed to inhibit ongoing investigations, and prevent legitimate public interest reporting,” the letter noted.
“Abuse of defamation law, including through SLAPP lawsuits, has become a serious threat to press freedom and advocacy rights in a number of countries, including the UK.”
Cadwalladr said yesterday: “This isn’t about an attack on me, it’s an assault on journalism. We cannot let millionaires use the courts to bully and harass and suppress critical reporting.”
Leave.EU communications director Andy Wigmore told Press Gazette: “Lies are lies and if the press can’t report facts then they need to be held to account.
“The press do not have a right to continually print untruths and lies without being accountable – in the case of Cadwalladr she has repeatedly stated as fact a variety of accusations against Arron Banks.
“If she has evidence and proof then she will be fine and a judge will decide the truth. If she has none then she and any organisation should be held to account.”
On Twitter at the weekend, Banks said his lawsuit was “hardly vexatious” and that “it should be relatively easy for Carole to stand up her conspiracy theories in court”.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is expected to respond to the letter in due course. A spokesperson said: “The UK Government strongly defends and respects the freedom of the press and fully recognises its importance to our country and democracy.”
Banks has also threatened to sue Netflix over its documentary The Great Hack which goes behind the scenes of Cadwalladr’s award-winning investigation into data misuse by Cambridge Analytica.
He is concerned the documentary, which is released on Wednesday, may contain “false and defamatory allegations” previously reported by Cadwalladr.
Picture: Reuters/Hannah McKay and Press Gazette