We need to end SLAPPs now
The UK’s legal structure continues to let oligarchs bully reporters
25 Jan 23

In the aftermath of her murder in 2017, the family of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia found themselves embroiled in a nasty battle with a London law firm. Dubbed a “one-woman Wikileaks” for her exposures of corruption among Malta’s elite Caruana Galizia had faced 42 civil libel cases and five criminal libel cases while alive. These cases passed posthumously to her family. One of them came from a company that had headquarters in London, meaning they could bring legal action there.

“It was like falling further into a pit,” her son Matthew told me over the phone from Malta. “I never imagined I’d be battling these [legal threats]. Everything that could happen to make the situation worse did happen,” he said.

The UK’s libel laws are notoriously open to abuse (as was reported by openDemocracy yesterday) – and London law firms have been at the beck and call of the powerful worldwide. Cases like Caruana Galizia’s have a name – SLAPPs. An acronym for “strategic lawsuits against public participation”, these heavy-handed legal actions seek to intimidate and deter journalists. Their purpose is not to address genuine grievances but to drain targets of as much time, money and energy as possible in an effort to silence them – and to dissuade other journalists from similar investigations.

The laws are also known to be claimant-friendly, especially those in England and Wales where the burden of proof required from a publisher is enormous, often impossible, effectively meaning the accused is guilty until proven innocent. It’s this quirk, combined with exorbitant fees for both parties, which has made London a SLAPPs breeding ground. A 2020 survey of reporters across 41 countries found the UK was the source of 31% of legal threats against journalists. The USA, by contrast, accounted for 11%, and all EU countries combined for 24%.

But the loopholes in UK law might be closing, finally starving firms that have grown fat on oligarchs’ money. A set of reforms were announced last summer that seek to limit the impact of SLAPPs. The reforms are twofold: first, stop cases before they get to court through a series of tests. Do they go against activity in the public interest, for example? If so, throw them out. Next, cap fees for those cases that do make it through.

Half a year on we are still waiting for reforms that, frankly, can’t come fast enough. SLAPPs have long cast a dark shadow over the UK’s media and publishing landscape. 2022 alone saw the climax of big legal actions against Guardian and Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who was taken to court by multimillionaire Brexit backer Arron Banks as a result of a comment she made on a TEDTalk in Canada, FT journalist Tom Burgis, author of  Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World, which led to defamation charges by Kazakh mining giant ENRC, and former Reuters journalist Catherine Belton, who was sued over a number of matters in her book Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the west, by multiple Russian billionaires, including Roman Abramovich.

Neither Burgis’ nor Belton’s cases made it to a full trial. Burgis’ was dismissed by a judge, while Belton settled after revisions were made to her book. Cadwalladr was less lucky. A trial at London’s High Court took place. At the time she said she feared losing her home and bankruptcy. She managed to crowdfund nearly £600,000 to cover costs, and the judgement ruled in her favour in June (although Banks has since been granted permission to appeal).

Yet even these victories are Pyrrhic ones. In a testimony given in the UK’s House of Commons after his case was dropped, Burgis said: “There is money that will not be got back that could have been spent on other books.”

He added:

“There is always a danger, as I know from conversations with colleagues, that you become an expensive and problematic journalist. In an era when the newspaper business model remains broke and oligarchs are amassing more and more wealth, this inequality of arms is extraordinary.”

Out of the spotlight plenty more battle away, ones with far less funding and backing. Journalists at Swedish business and finance publication Realtid, for example, were recently sued in London in connection with their investigation into the financing of energy projects involving a Swedish businessman. Faced with the prospect of financial ruin, just last week, on 13 January, it was announced that they had settled out of court, on condition that they published an apology.

It’s not just the personal toll on these journalists that is deeply concerning; it’s the industry-wide cost. Fear of legal threats is as damning as the threats themselves. Like the guillotine in revolutionary France, it hovers overhead. Do you meet with the whistleblower whose story might land you a Pulitzer, but also might land you in court? I’ve spoken to editors at desks who have become too scared to touch certain topics; a single strongly-worded letter from a minted London law firm is all it takes to spike an article. A top journalist in the UK, now in his 60s who has reported all over the world, told me that he’s never operated in a more fearful media environment than this. Covering your back is exhausting and the risk of humiliation high too. It demands nerves of steel and a sizeable chunk of liability insurance to boot. Young journalists, small media outfits and freelancers are basically counted out.

How many stories have never seen the light and what information are British readers being deprived of? Speaking at a House of Lords Committee back in April, Thomas Jarvis, legal director at Harper Collins, said the publisher regularly avoids publishing information in books in the UK that would be included in international editions because “the risk of publication in the UK is far greater”. This came from the publisher behind both Belton and Burgis’ books, with a proven record to take risks.

Burgis told me that he feels “incredibly lucky to have been backed so bravely” by his publishers. At the same time he’s angry about “all the information of vital public interest that gets suppressed because there is often today such inequality of arms between journalists (incredibly poor) and the powerful (increasingly rich).”

There’s now a real opportunity for change. The war in Ukraine catapulted SLAPPs to the forefront. With some cases being brought by oligarchs and kleptocrats with links to Putin, there has never been a less fashionable time to be a claimant. The UK also has a new head of state and a new prime minister. What better way to show their commitment to democracy than by closing the legal loopholes.

The tide has been turning against SLAPPs for some time. In early 2021, the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition emerged, made up of NGOs, individual campaigners and lawyers, co-founded and led by Index. It helped pave the wave for the proposed legislation. Through the coalition’s efforts and a changing international landscape British MPs have started to take SLAPPs seriously. So why not push this legislation across the finish line? Today it stubbornly remains just a proposal, rather than a reality. And, speaking to Gill Phillips, director of editorial legal services at the Guardian, she confirmed some of my fears if it does get passed – namely the devil will be in the detail – and the detail has yet to be finessed. No “definition” of public interest, for example, has been provided. Nor is there a clear definition of what constitutes a SLAPP. This might appear like semantics, but in the case of Cadwalladr the judge didn’t deem the case as SLAPP, a judgment that perplexed many.

Still, all those involved in the Coalition welcomed the proposals when they were first mooted, as did Matthew Caruana Galizia.

“What the government is doing is putting a flag up a pole” he said. He thinks the proposals are good and if passed will improve the situation. He adds though that “we can go further”.

“I say ‘we’ not as a UK citizen – I’m a citizen of Malta – but ‘we’ because ‘we’ all suffer as a result of what the British courts allow. They’ve become a platform to stop investigative journalism.”

Let’s dismantle this platform in 2023. It’s high time to end the trial of media freedom.

By Jemimah Steinfeld

Jemimah Steinfeld has lived and worked in both Shanghai and Beijing where she has written on a wide range of topics, with a particular focus on youth culture, gender and censorship. She is the author of the book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, which was described by the FT as "meticulously researched and highly readable". Jemimah has freelanced for a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Vice, CNN, Time Out and the Huffington Post. She has a degree in history from Bristol University and went on to study an MA in Chinese Studies at SOAS.