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One step forward, two steps back

What does last week's court ruling in the Arron Banks vs Carole Cadwalladr legal battle tell us about the state of press freedom in the UK?

By James Evelegh

One step forward, two steps back

Last year, it looked like the UK had taken a big step forward on press freedom.

In June 2022, Arron Banks lost his libel action against the Observer and Guardian journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, after her public interest defence had been accepted.

In a statement at the time, Paul Webster, editor of The Observer, and Katharine Viner, Guardian News & Media editor-in-chief said: “We believe this case was an example of a powerful wealthy person targeting an individual journalist for their work. Carole Cadwalladr’s victory in this case is an important step in defending the rights of journalists to report in the public interest.”

Banks indicated he would appeal, and, reported the Guardian, “in February the multimillionaire businessman partially reversed her victory at the court of appeal and, after damages of £35,000 were agreed, Cadwalladr has [last week] been told by the court to pay costs running into several hundreds of thousands of pounds.”

Carole Cadwalladr has indicated she will appeal and has set up a crowd-funding page to help her cover the costs.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “This decision sends a deeply worrying message to all journalists. The decision, on what are incredibly high costs, is a major blow to public interest journalism, given the judge’s clear position that there was a valid public interest defence at the time of publication.

“The NUJ will be encouraging members throughout the union to offer solidarity and boost practical support towards Carole’s costs. No journalist should be put through what Carole has experienced. The government must take action now, to introduce legislation it has promised to tackle SLAPPs and the abusive practices of those with no regard for media freedom.”

Fiona O’Brien, UK Bureau Director of RSF (Reporters without Borders) said: “These exorbitant costs – ordered despite the court’s recognition that Carole Cadwalladr’s work was at the time of publication covered by a public interest defence – send a chilling message to investigative journalists everywhere. This legal process was aimed at intimidating Cadwalladr and silencing her courageous journalism, and we stand in solidarity with her and all journalists subject to such exploitative litigation.”

Maria Ressa, the Filipino journalist who won the Golden Pen of Freedom award in 2018, tweeted: “We're with you, @carolecadwalla Dear #UK, how will you hold power to account if journalists are penalized for doing the right thing? #CourageON”

This year, the UK was ranked 26th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index. This legal ruling puts even that less-than-impressive ranking in doubt for next year.

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