Brexit campaigner Arron Banks has lost his libel case against investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr.
Mr Banks, the founder of the pro-Brexit campaign group Leave.EU, sued Ms Cadwalladr for defamation over two instances in 2019 – one in a TED Talk video and another in a tweet.
Mr Banks claimed he was defamed after comments Ms Cadwalladr made about his relationship with the Russian state.
The judgement from the High Court follows a five-day hearing in January.
The case, which has been going on for nearly three years, centred on comments Ms Cadwalladr made in a TED talk which has been viewed more than five million times since it was broadcast online in April 2019.
In the talk, she said: “And I am not even going to get into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government.”
According to the judgement from Mrs Justice Steyn:
- The single meaning of Ms Cadwalladr’s words was that: “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”
- Ms Cadwalladr said she did not intend to make that allegation, and accepts it was untrue
- After initially putting forward a truth defence, Ms Cadwalladr withdrew that defence
- She then used a public interest defence to justify her statements and Ms Cadwalladr established that “her belief that publishing the TED talk was in the public interest was reasonable”
- The court found that talk “had caused serious harm to his [Banks’s] reputation”
- But Mrs Justice Steyn said: “I accept the TED talk was political expression of high importance, and great public interest (in the strictest sense), not only in this country but worldwide”
- The tweet, which Mr Banks also complained about, had not caused “serious harm” to his reputation
- The judge said if she had found the tweet had caused “serious harm” to Mr Banks’ reputation she would have concluded Ms Cadwalladr’s belief that the tweet was in the public interest was also reasonable.
A public interest defence allows a defendant to justify themselves based on the reason that the information was in the public interest.
“I am so profoundly grateful and relieved,” said Ms Cadwalladr, who first reported the Cambridge Analytica data scandal where harvested data was used during elections.
Writing on Twitter after the judgement, she thanked her legal team and the 29,000 people who contributed to her legal defence fund, saying: “I literally couldn’t have done it without you.”
She said the last three years had been “extraordinarily difficult” and hoped no other journalists had to go through this “crushing, debilitating, all-consuming experience”.
Mr Banks congratulated the investigative journalist on winning, but said he would “likely” appeal against the court judgement.
“It leaves open for the journalist the excuse that she thought what she said was correct even though she had no facts,” he posted on Twitter.
During the trial, Ms Cadwalladr’s legal team said the case “should be of concern to anyone who values freedom of speech in this country”.
Rebecca Vincent, from the press freedom campaign group, Reporters without Borders, described it as a victory for journalism.
It was not just Ms Cadwalladr’s reputation at “stake”, but also the “ability of the press to report freely on such issues”.
“If Arron Banks had won today that would have a very different impact on the UK’s press freedom climate so we’re very pleased that it’s gone the way that it has,” she told the BBC.