The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition welcomes Wayne David MP’s Anti-SLAPP Bill

Today, Wayne David MP will present the Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill, his Private Members’ Bill, to the Houses of Parliament. This is a crucial milestone for the UK to stamp out all SLAPPs targeting public interest reporting. Irrespective of the identity of the public watchdog or the issues they are covering, a standalone bill is necessary to ensure that abusive legal threats and actions cannot continue to stifle free speech.

With a general election expected next year the introduction of this standalone Bill is the start of an important process. If the Bill is bold and expansive enough to protect all forms of free expression, protect British courts against abuse and disincentivise further SLAPPs, the impact it can have cannot be overstated.

The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition, of which Index on Censorship is a co-founder and co-chair, will monitor and engage with the process to ensure the protections are as robust, clear and accessible as possible. The threats to people such as Carole Cadwalladr, Catherine Belton, Tom Burgis, Nina Cresswell, openDemocracy and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), as well as the countless others who have been subject to legal intimidation demonstrates the urgent need for action to ensure free speech remains free.

If the details of the Bill are fleshed out in line with our Model Anti-SLAPP Law, this could be a hugely significant step to address the gaps in the recently passed Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act (ECCT) that established important, although limited, anti-SLAPP protections for those reporting on economic crime. While the Coalition welcomed the recent formation of the UK Government-led taskforce on non-legislative measures to tackle SLAPPs, we have always believed anti-SLAPP legislation to be an indispensable part of any initiative to tackle SLAPPs. The Bill announced today brings us closer to this goal.

Wayne David, MP for Caerphilly said: “It is vital that in a healthy democracy there is protection for everyone who speaks out in the public interest. Whether it is victims of sexual violence, journalists, whistleblowers or academics, there must be freedom for those who speak out. This Bill would ensure that there is that freedom in law. I look forward to working with members of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition and others to ensure that this Bill reaches the statute book.”

The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition co-chairs said: “We welcome the announcement of Wayne’s Private Members’ Bill today. While the devil will be in the detail, this is a significant step towards ensuring British courts cannot be abused to shut down public interest speech. As always, we will assess the Bill with reference to the standards we have established in our Model Anti-SLAPP Law. We call on all Parliamentarians, irrespective of party, to continue the already fruitful cross-party collaboration on this issue to ensure we can stamp out SLAPPs without delay.”

Notes:

  • The Long and Short Title for the Private Members’ Bill can be found here: https://commonsbusiness.parliament.uk/Document/83383/Pdf?subType=Standard#p age=20
  • The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition: https://antislapp.uk/
  • The Model Anti-SLAPP Law can be viewed here: https://antislapp.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/Model-UK-Anti-SLAPP-Law-Final-Ve rsion.docx.pdf
  • The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition response to the passage of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act: https://antislapp.uk/2023/10/26/a-landmark-moment-but-we-cant-stop-here/

The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition: The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition is an informal working group established in January 2021. It comprises freedom of expression, whistleblowing, anti-corruption and transparency organisations, as well as media lawyers, researchers and academics who are researching, monitoring and highlighting cases of legal intimidation and SLAPPs, as well as seeking to develop remedies for mitigation and redress.

The coalition has worked to make the case for structural and meaningful responses to SLAPPs. The coalition, which meets monthly, brings together expertise from a range of different fields to engage with policy-makers, regulators, media outlets and other organisations to ensure that the right to free expression and the ability for all to participate in society around them is not restricted by vexatious legal threats deployed by the wealthy and powerful seeking to shutdown scrutiny and democratic accountability.

UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition reiterates its support for Carole Cadwalladr

The undersigned organisations reiterate their support for journalist Carole Cadwalladr as the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in the case taken against her by millionaire businessman and political donor Arron Banks. Banks’ legal action related to two publications in which Cadwalladr had said the businessman was lying about his relationship with the Russian state – one in a TED Talk and one in a tweet.

Last June, Banks lost the libel action against Cadwalladr. At the time, the judge ruled that Cadwalladr had successfully established a public interest defence for the TED Talk, which was the only of the two publications to have reached the threshold for serious harm. While the judge found that Cadwalladr’s public interest defence was no longer applicable after the Electoral Commission exonerated Banks (in April 2020), she did not believe that the continued publication of the TED Talk could cause serious harm to his reputation. In his appeal, Banks argued that the judge should have found that both the TED Talk and the Tweet did seriously harm his reputation after April 2020. 

Yesterday the Court of Appeal upheld Banks’ argument that the continued publication of the TED Talk had the potential to harm his reputation, but it dismissed two other grounds of his appeal, upholding the initial decision to dismiss the claim in respect of the Tweet. Although the court acknowledged that Cadwalladr does not have control over TED’s publications, she will nonetheless be liable for the damages arising from the publication of the TED Talk after April 2020. 

“We are pleased that the judge dismissed the majority of the appeal against Cadwalladr,” the members of the UK Anti-SLAPPs Coalition said. “We have long categorised this case as a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), aimed at intimidating and silencing Cadwalladr.” SLAPPs abuse the law in order to intimidate and silence public watchdogs from speaking out on matters of public interest. 

Last year, the co-chairs of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition rebutted Mrs Justice Steyn’s assertion that the case against Cadwalladr was not a SLAPP, highlighting the fact that Banks could have taken action against The Observer or TED instead of her. “In compounding the power imbalance between him and the defendant, [Banks’] decision to take legal action against [Cadwalladr] as an individual adds weight to the categorisation of the case as a SLAPP,” they wrote.

“Last July, the government set out a package of measures aimed at tackling SLAPPs, but it appears that limited – if any – progress has been made at enacting those measures since then,” the organisations concluded. “We once again call on the government to step up. Our democracy relies on the ability of public watchdogs to hold power to account.”

Signed:

Index on Censorship

Justice for Journalists Foundation

Whistleblowing International Network 

openDemocracy

National Union of Journalists (NUJ)

Public Interest News Foundation

ARTICLE 19

English PEN

The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation

Committee to Protect Journalists

Protect

Spotlight on Corruption

PEN International

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

We need to end SLAPPs now

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.

Letter to Justice Secretary: Adoption of a UK Anti-SLAPP Law

29 November 2022

To the Rt. Hon. Dominic Raab MP

Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice       

Copies sent to: 

Rt. Hon. Dominic Raab, Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Rt. Hon. Rishi Sunak MP, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 

Rt. Hon. Michelle Donelan MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Rt. Hon. James Cleverly MP, Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs

Mr. Steve Reed MP, Shadow Labour Secretary of State for Justice

Rt. Hon. Alistair Carmichael MP, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Home Affairs, Justice and Northern Ireland

Ms. Anne McLaughlin MP, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice)

Mr. John Penrose MP, UK Government Anti Corruption Champion

Mr. Paul Philip, Chief Executive, Solicitors Regulation Authority

Mr. Mark Neale, Director-General, The Bar Standards Board

Ms. Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights 

Ms. Teresa Ribeiro, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Representative on Freedom of the Media

Ms. Irene Khan, United Nations Special Rapporteur on on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression

Re: Adoption of a UK Anti-SLAPP Law

As a group of leading editors, journalists, publishers, lawyers and other experts, we are writing to express our support for the Model UK Anti-SLAPP Law launched this November by the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition – and to urge you to move swiftly to enshrine these proposals in law.

Events over the past year have shone a light on the use of abusive lawsuits and legal threats to shut down public interest speech. This is a problem that has long been endemic in newsrooms, publishing houses, and civil society organisations. In an age of increasing financial vulnerability in the news industry, it is all too easy for such abusive legal tactics to shut down investigations and block accountability. 

We welcome your commitment to bring in reforms to address Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), as you said on 20 July 2022, in order to “uphold freedom of speech, end the abuse of our justice system, and defend those who bravely shine a light on corruption.” High-profile cases – such as those targeting Catherine Belton, Tom Burgis, Elliot Higgins, and more recently openDemocracy and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism – are just the most visible manifestation of a much broader problem which has affected newspapers across Fleet Street and the wider UK media industry for many years. 

The public interest reporting targeted by SLAPPs is vital for the health of democratic societies, including law enforcement’s ability to investigate wrongdoing promptly and effectively. This is of acute importance in the UK, which journalistic investigations have repeatedly shown to be a hub for illicit finance from kleptocratic elites. As of April 2022, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has estimated the scale of money laundering impacting the UK is in excess of £100bn a year.

Journalism has a huge role to play in tackling this problem. For example, investigations by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) into the ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’ scandal supported the NCA in seizing millions in corrupt funds from a number of individuals, including £5.6 million from members of one Azerbaijani MP’s family.  Prior to the NCA’s seizure, the same MP had spent two years pursuing Paul Radu, co-founder of OCCRP through London’s libel courts. The inequality of arms in such cases is clear. As Radu notes: “The people suing journalists in the UK rely on these huge legal bills being so intimidating that the journalists won’t even try to defend themselves.” 

In March 2022, at the launch of the Government consultation on SLAPPs, you stressed that “The Government will not tolerate Russian oligarchs and other corrupt elites abusing British courts to muzzle those who shine a light on their wrongdoing.” The findings of the consultation, published in July, clearly stated that “the type of activity identified as SLAPPs and the aim of preventing exposure of matters that are in the public interest go beyond the parameters of ordinary litigation and pose a threat to freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.

Fortunately, there is an oven-ready solution to this problem. The Model Anti-SLAPP Law, drafted by the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition in consultation with leading media lawyers and industry experts, would provide robust protection against SLAPPs, building on the framework proposed by the Ministry of Justice in JulyKey features include:

  1. A filter mechanism that empowers courts to swiftly dispose of SLAPPs without the need for a subjective enquiry into the state of mind of the SLAPP filer. This mechanism should subject claims that exhibit features of abuse to a higher merits threshold.
  2. Penalties that are sufficient to deter the use of SLAPPs and provide full compensation to those targeted. Such penalties should take into account the harm caused to the defendant and the conduct of and the resources available to the claimant.
  3. Protective measures for SLAPP victims including cost protections, safeguards, and measures to reduce the ability of SLAPP claimants to weaponise the litigation process against public watchdogs. 

The need could not be more urgent. Research by the Foreign Policy Centre and other members of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition has found that SLAPPs are on the rise and that the UK is the number one originator of abusive legal actions. In fact, the UK has been identified as the leading source of SLAPPs, almost as frequent a source as all European Union countries and the United States combined. 

The EU has already taken steps, with a proposed Anti-SLAPP Directive announced in April. In the US, 34 US states already have anti-SLAPPs laws in place, and this year Congress has introduced the first federal SLAPP Protection Act. Moreover, the US has also launched the Defamation Defense Fund, recognising the impact SLAPP actions have on journalists, as they “are designed to deter them from doing their work.”

You have made clear your commitment to strengthening legal protections against these legal tactics. It is crucial momentum is not lost. We encourage you to put forward, in the earliest possible time frame, legislation in line with the model UK Anti-SLAPP Law, to ensure that the UK can keep pace and contribute to this global movement to protect against SLAPPs.

Yours,

John Witherow, Chairman, Times Media

Emma Tucker, Editor, The Sunday Times

Tony Gallagher, Editor, The Times

Victoria Newton, Editor-in-Chief, The Sun

Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief, DMG media

Ted Verity, Editor, The Daily Mail

Katharine Viner, Editor-in-Chief, The Guardian

Paul Webster, Editor, The Observer

Alison Phillips, Editor, The Mirror 

Oliver Duff, Editor-in-Chief, i

Roula Khalaf, Editor, The Financial Times

Chris Evans, Editor, The Telegraph

Alan Rusbridger, Editor, Prospect Magazine

Ian Hislop, Editor, Private Eye

Zanny Minton Beddoes, Editor-in-Chief, The Economist

Alessandra Galloni, Editor-in-Chief, Reuters News Agency

John Micklethwait, Editor-in-Chief, Bloomberg

Drew Sullivan, Co-founder and Publisher, Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)

Paul Radu, Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, OCCRP

Rozina Breen, CEO, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ)

Peter Geoghegan, Editor-in-Chief and CEO, openDemocracy

Nick Mathiason, Co-founder and Co-director, Finance Uncovered

Gerard Ryle, Director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)

David Kaplan, Executive Director, Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN)

Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary, National Union of Journalists (NUJ)

Dawn Alford, Executive Director, Society of Editors

Sayra Tekin, Director of Legal, News Media Association (NMA)

Sarah Baxter, Director, Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting

Paul Murphy, Head of Investigations, Financial Times

Rachel Oldroyd, Deputy Investigations Editor, The Guardian

Carole Cadwalladr, journalist, The Observer

Catherine Belton, journalist and author of the book, Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the west

Tom Burgis, reporter and author of the book, Kleptopia: How dirty money is conquering the world

Oliver Bullough, Journalist and author

Clare Rewcastle Brown, investigative journalist and founder of The Sarawak Report

Richard Brooks, journalist, Private Eye

Matthew Caruana Galizia, Director of The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation

Mark Stephens CBE, Partner at Howard Kennedy LLP

Caroline Kean, Consultant Partner, Wiggin

Matthew Jury, Managing Partner, McCue Jury and Partners

David Price KC

Rupert Cowper-Coles, Partner at RPC

Conor McCarthy, Barrister, Monckton Chambers

Pia Sarma, Editorial Legal Director, Times Newspapers Ltd

Gill Phillips, Director of Editorial Legal Services, Guardian News & Media

Lisa Webb, Senior Lawyer, Which?

Juliette Garside, Deputy Business Editor, The Guardian and The Observer 

Alexander Papachristou, Executive Director of the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice

José Borghino, Secretary General, International Publishers Association

Dan Conway, CEO, Publishers Association

Arabella Pike, Publishing Director, HarperCollins Publishers

Joanna Prior, CEO of Macmillan Publishers International Limited

Meirion Jones, Editor, TBIJ

Emily Wilson, Bureau Local Editor, TBIJ

James Ball, Global Editor, TBIJ

Franz Wild, Enablers Editor, TBIJ

James Lee, Chair of the Board, TBIJ

Stewart Kirkpatrick, Head of Impact, openDemocracy

Moira Sleight, Editor, the Methodist Recorder

Paul Caruana Galizia, reporter, Tortoise

Tom Bergin, journalist and author

James Nixey, Director, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

Edward Lucas, Author, European and transatlantic security consultant and fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)

Sean O’Neill, Senior Writer, The Times

Dr Peter Coe, Associate Professor in Law, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham

Alex Wilson, Partner at RPC

George Greenwood, Investigations Reporter, The Times

Simon Bowers, Investigations Editor, Finance Uncovered

John Heathershaw, Professor of International Relations, University of Exeter 

Tena Prelec, Research Fellow, DPIR, University of Oxford

Thomas Mayne, Research Fellow, DPIR, University of Oxford

Jodie Ginsberg, President, Committee to Protect Journalists

Dr Julie Macfarlane, Co-Founder, Can’t Buy My Silence campaign to ban the misuse of NDAs

Zelda Perkins, Co-Founder, Can’t Buy My Silence campaign to ban the misuse of NDAs