Judge makes preliminary ruling in Carole Cadwalladr libel case

Arron Banks, who funded Leave.EU campaign, has brought defamation action against journalist

A judge has issued a preliminary ruling in a libel action against the investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr and warned that broadcasts and public speeches should not be interpreted as though they were formal written texts.

Cadwalladr has won a series of prestigious journalism prizes for her work published in the Guardian and Observer exposing the Cambridge Analytica data-harvesting scandal and spending by pro-Brexit campaigners in the EU referendum.

She is being sued by the insurance businessman Arron Banks, who funded the pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaign group. Banks has brought a defamation action against Cadwalladr personally.

The ruling on Thursday by Mr Justice Saini concerns the meaning of statements by Cadwalladr in two public talks and the meaning of words in two of her tweets, which Banks argues were defamatory.

During a talk in June, Cadwalladr stated: “We know that the Russian government offered money to Arron Banks.”

Banks’s lawyers argued this meant there were strong grounds to believe he would assist the interests of the Russian government, against those of the British government, in exchange for that money.

Cadwalladr’s lawyers had argued this meant there were reasonable grounds to investigate.

However, the judge concluded that in the context of the entire speech it in fact meant there were “substantial grounds to investigate” whether Banks would be willing to accept such funds, in violation of prohibitions on foreign electoral funding.

Saini reached a similar conclusion in relation to a tweet, in which Cadwalladr compared Britain’s response to concerns about Russian electoral interference unfavourably with that of Italy, where a public prosecutor has opened an investigation into links between politicians and Russian officials.

Banks argued this meant “there was reason to believe” he had committed “criminal offences which had involved meeting Russian government officials”. But the judge disagreed, finding instead that it had a less serious meaning that “there is a proper basis to investigate whether Banks’s contact with Russia involved any criminal conduct”.

During a Ted Talk in April, Cadwalladr said: “And I am not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government.”

In a second tweet, she said: “I say he lied about his contact with the Russian government. Because he did.”

Cadwalladr’s lawyers argued that both statements meant there were reasonable grounds to suspect he had lied about a secret relationship with Russia, and to investigate whether he had illegally accepted foreign funding during the referendum campaign. However, Saini ruled that these were statements of fact, rather than calls for any investigations.

In drawing his conclusions Saini cautioned against an overly legalistic interpretation of the meaning of words in resolving legal disputes, and emphasised that the ordinary reader or listener would not minutely analyse possible interpretations of words like a libel lawyer.

“Lawyers (and I include judges in that category) cannot resist turning any exercise where language is being considered into an exercise in construction of words,” he said.

Transcribing the text of Cadwalladr’s public talks and extensively litigating the precise meaning of tweets “at times seemed to me to be more like arguments about the construction of a deed concerning the demise of a leasehold interest,” he complained.

In a statement, the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, and the Observer editor, Paul Webster, said: “Carole’s brave reporting has made waves around the world, and given the public much more insight into the secretive ways some powerful people and organisations have sought to influence our democracies.

“This case is a very worrying example of a wealthy person singling out an individual journalist and using the law to stifle legitimate debate and silence public interest journalism.”

A coalition of free press organisations, including Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship, called on Banks to withdraw the legal action.

“We are alarmed by the increasing use of SLAPP [strategic litigation against public participation] lawsuits as a means of attempting to silence public interest reporting – a trend that is posing a growing threat to freedom of expression internationally,” they said.

Tamsin Allen of the law firm Bindmans said on behalf of Cadwalladr: “The judge has made it very clear that the battleground in the dispute is electoral funding. We believe that reporting this issue is a matter of the highest possible public interest, and that an attack on Carole’s reporting is an attack on all journalists’ ability to report on how our elections and referenda are funded.”

Banks’s solicitors, Kingsley Napley, did not respond to an invitation to comment. Banks has previously insisted he supports press freedom but would not tolerate false statements or “misrepresentation of the facts”. He has always maintained he made his money in the UK, and denied that Russian funding played any role in the Brexit campaign.


David Pegg

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Arron Banks loses libel action against reporter Carole Cadwalladr
Judge rules Guardian journalist successfully established public interest defence under Defamation Act

Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

13, Jun, 2022 @11:49 AM

Article image
Arron Banks loses two of three challenges to failed libel action against Carole Cadwalladr
Court of appeal upholds one claim Brexit backer suffered serious harm by continuing publication of inaccurate Ted Talk criticisms

Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

28, Feb, 2023 @7:04 PM

Article image
Arron Banks allowed to appeal over lost libel action against Carole Cadwalladr
High court judge grants permission on one ground after ruling last week in Observer and Guardian journalist’s favour

Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

24, Jun, 2022 @12:57 PM

Article image
Libel loss for Arron Banks gives welcome fillip to journalists
Analysis: Win for multimillionaire would have been another blow to news organisations concerned by curbs on reporting

Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

13, Jun, 2022 @4:13 PM

Article image
Arron Banks drops two parts of libel claim against Carole Cadwalladr
Action will proceed but only over statements made in Ted Talk last year and one tweet

Owen Bowcott legal affairs correspondent

23, Jan, 2020 @7:09 PM

Article image
Chris Packham awarded £90,000 damages in libel case
Naturalist wins claim over articles on Country Squire Magazine website that accused him of lying about charity

Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

25, May, 2023 @6:47 PM

Article image
Jamie Vardy’s phone can be searched in wife’s libel case, judge rules
Fees for ‘Wagatha Christie’ legal fight between Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney to top £1m

Jim Waterson

04, Aug, 2021 @5:18 PM

Article image
Supreme court orders libel case retrial over judge's 'barrage of hostility'
Judge’s use of ‘immoderate, ill-tempered and at times offensive language’ meant trial was unfair, court rules

Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent

03, Jun, 2020 @12:30 PM

Article image
Carole Cadwalladr to appeal against ruling that she pay Arron Banks’s legal costs
Decision to make journalist responsible for hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal costs sets ‘chilling precedent for UK journalism’

Emma Graham-Harrison

23, May, 2023 @6:10 PM

Mr Justice Eady replaced as senior libel judge

Mr Justice Tugendhat to take charge of Queen's bench jury and non-jury lists, which hear most defamation and privacy cases. By James Robinson

James Robinson

14, Sep, 2010 @3:19 PM