Arron Banks loses libel action against reporter Carole Cadwalladr

Judge rules Guardian journalist successfully established public interest defence under Defamation Act

The multimillionaire Brexit backer Arron Banks has lost his libel action against the Observer and Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, in a significant decision for public interest journalism.

Banks, who funded the pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaign group, sued Cadwalladr personally over two instances in which she said the businessman was lying about his relationship with the Russian state – one in a Ted Talk and the other in a tweet.

In a written judgment handed down on Monday, Mrs Justice Steyn ruled the threshold for serious harm had only been met in the Ted Talk but that Cadwalladr initially had successfully established a public interest defence under section 4 of the Defamation Act.

The defence fell away after the Electoral Commission found no evidence of law-breaking by Banks with respect to donations but by that time – 29 April 2020 – the court was not satisfied that the continuing publication of the Ted Talk caused or was likely to cause serious harm to his reputation.

Dismissing the claim by Banks, the judge said: “A key factor, in my judgment, is whether Ms Cadwalladr had reasonable grounds to believe that her intended meaning was true … I consider that when she gave the Ted Talk, she did.”

Cadwalladr had suffered a blow to her case at a preliminary hearing in 2019, when Mr Justice Saini concluded an average listener would have understood the meaning of the remark about Banks made by the journalist at the Ted technology conference – and in the related tweet – to be: “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 has argued she did not intend to imply that Banks had received Russian money, nor that he lied about receiving Russian money, only about the extent of his contacts with Russia. After the preliminary hearing ruling she dropped the defence of truth and relied on public interest.

Steyn found Cadwalladr’s intended meaning to be “(i) the claimant lied on more than one occasion about a secret relationship he had with the Russian government; and (ii) there are questions to be asked (ie grounds to investigate) whether the source of his donations was foreign funding, accepted in breach of the law on the funding of electoral campaigns.”

The judge added: “Based on her investigation, Ms Cadwalladr had reasonable grounds to believe that (i) Mr Banks had been offered ‘sweetheart’ deals by the Russian government in the period running up to the EU referendum, although she had seen no evidence he had entered into any such deals; and (ii) Mr Banks’s financial affairs, and the source of his ability to make the biggest political donations in UK history, were opaque.”

Steyn said Cadwalladr’s belief at the time of the Ted talk was bolstered by the fact that the Electoral Commission had announced it had reasonable grounds to suspect that Banks was not the true source of the £8m loans/donations to Leave.EU and that the National Crime Agency was investigating the matter.

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The judge said that when, subsequent to the Ted conference, the UK elections watchdog and the NCA said they had found no evidence of law-breaking by Banks, Cadwalladr’s belief that publication of the Ted talk was in the public interest ceased to be reasonable but by that time there was not serious harm to his reputation.

If Banks had won the case, Cadwalladr faced being liable for his costs, estimated at between £750,000 and £1m, together with any resultant damages.

In a tweet, Banks said he was likely to appeal. In a lengthy statement, he said Cadwalladr had conceded during the trial that there was no evidence he had accepted money from the Russian government or its proxies, or that Russian money went into the Brexit campaign, and that she never thought he was a Russian agent or actor.

He added: “I am pleased the judge made clear my attempt to seek vindication was legitimate and that it was neither fair nor apt to describe this as a ‘Slapp [strategic lawsuits against public participation – an intimidation lawsuit] suit’. Quite right. This was never about seeking to silence criticism. Carole knows that had she apologised and agreed not to repeat this false accusation at the outset, these proceedings would never have been necessary.”

The Observer editor, Paul Webster, and the Guardian News & Media editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, welcomed the verdict as “an important victory for free speech and public-interest reporting”, highlighting the online trolling, abuse and harassment Cadwalladr had faced. “We believe this case was an example of a powerful wealthy person targeting an individual journalist for their work,” they said.

“Carole Cadwalladr’s victory in this case is an important step in defending the rights of journalists to report in the public interest.”


Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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