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

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

Banks is suing Cadwalladr because she said in a 2019 TED Talk and subsequent tweet that the Brexit donor lied about his “secret” relationship with the Russian government. If it loses, Cadwalladr faces legal costs of up to £1million plus damages. Reporters Without Borders described the case as ‘abusive’ attempt to ‘silence public interest reporting’.

Whatever decision is made, however, some chilling facts will remain true.

To begin with, Banks chose to personally sue Cadwalladr. He didn’t sue the much better-resourced Guardian Media Group, which published his stories for years; nor TED, which hosted his conference; nor the many major 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 silence negative press. Not only does this drain money and morale from the most vulnerable targets, but it also prevents them from doing more journalism.

openDemocracy has direct experience of this. During my tenure as editor, our reporting on Brexit campaign finance helped prompt legislative changes, parliamentary inquiries and record fines for breaches of election law. It has been nominated for several awards and has been the subject of a bestselling book. Yet one of our top reporters feared losing his home to a case that ultimately never came to fruition, but loomed over us for two years and drained precious resources.

Second, Cadwalladr has for years been the target of vicious and misogynistic attacks online, including from Arron Banks’ own Brexit campaign, Leave.EU. In 2017, Leave.EU tweeted a crudely manipulated video to show her being violently attacked. Even after hundreds of complaints, Twitter refused to take it down. After direct intervention by The Observer editor Paul Webster, Banks’ deputy Andy Wigmore eventually pulled it.

He was under no legal obligation 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.

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