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‘London Calling’: The issue of legal intimidation and SLAPPs against media emanating from the United Kingdom

Susan Coughtie and ARTICLE 19 staff

A new report published by the Foreign Policy Centre and ARTICLE 19 examines the issue of legal intimidation and SLAPPs emanating from the United Kingdom, but particularly London, against journalists and media outlets around the world and finds they are stifling scrutiny and debate on matters of public interest.

 

The use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) to shut down acts of public participation is a phenomenon that has been causing growing concern globally. However, it is the UK, and more specifically London, that has been identified as a leading jurisdiction for domestic and trans-national SLAPP cases against media.

 

The report was launched at the Frontline Club and online on Monday 25th April with the following speakers: Clare Rewcastle Brown, independent journalist and founder of The Sarawak Report; Paul Caruana Galizia, reporter at Tortoise Media and co-founder of The Daphne Foundation; Peter Geoghegan, Editor-in-Chief at openDemocracy and author of Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics; Susan Coughtrie, Project Director at the Foreign Policy Centre and co-chair of UK anti-SLAPP coalition; Charlie Holt, Lawyer, Campaigns Advisor at English PEN and co-chair of UK anti-SLAPP coalition; Adelaide Lopez, Media Defence Lawyer at Wiggin; and Chair: Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19. Watch the recording of the event here or listen to the audio here.

 

‘London Calling’ begins by focusing on legal cases recently brought to the London High Court against investigative journalists, – including Catherine Belton, Tom Burgis and Carole Cadwalladr, that bear the hallmarks of SLAPPs. It explores the challenges that they have faced in defending themselves, highlighting issues within the English and Welsh legal system that can create a more ‘claimant friendly’ environment, despite reforms in 2013. Typically, however, the intention of a SLAPP claimant is not necessarily to reach the court stage, where the facts of the matter might be examined more closely, but rather to draw out the legal proceedings in order to delay publication and/or exhaust the financial as well as other resources (time, energy and psychological) of the defendant. Journalists and media subject to legal threats understandably therefore may fold under the financial pressure of taking a case to court, where they may lose thousands if not tens of thousands of pounds, even if they were to eventually win. Journalists who have ‘won’ cases, usually due to the claimant withdrawing at a late stage, can still feel that they have lost due to the level of resources wasted that cannot be reclaimed.

 

Cases that reach court are, therefore, the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Over the last few years, media all over the world have been increasingly reporting that they are subject to legal threats facilitated by UK based law firms, especially when investigating powerful and wealthy individuals. For example, in a 2020 FPC survey, 63 journalists working on financial crime and corruption in 41 countries identified the UK as the leading international jurisdiction for legal threats. More than 60% of respondents were working on corruption investigations with a direct or indirect link to the UK. The role that London plays as a global hub for the super-rich, including those enriched through illicit schemes, appears to be compounding the problem. However, such cases rarely make the public record unless journalists themselves speak out.

 

The aim of this report is to shed light on this issue and explore how and why cases of legal intimidation and SLAPPs deployed from the UK against media, based both here and abroad, work. It also examines the impact caused, firstly on journalists and wider media freedom, but secondly in delaying or preventing the redress of wrongdoing in society. While the English and Welsh legal system is the primary focus of this report, Scotland and Northern Ireland are also briefly examined. Concerns regarding the chilling nature of their libel laws have led to reform in both countries in the last couple of years. The report concludes that those wealthy enough can evade scrutiny regardless of how effectively a particular law has balanced out rights to privacy and free speech, because it is the process of being subject to abusive legal threats that is the punishment for media and can force them to concede. The right to defend yourself against spurious claims is an important feature of democratic societies. However, the misuse of legal systems to shut down public interest reporting must be seen as undemocratic and having a corrosive effect on our core values, including freedom of expression and right to information.

 

In a welcome step, in March 2022 the UK Government recognised the issue of SLAPPs, and its impact, by launching a consultation on potential areas for reform. The conclusion drawn from this report’s research is that legislative reform is needed to ensure that abusive claims can be disposed of at a much earlier stage, with a high threshold for public interest reporting, keeping the costs to defend a case to a minimum and creating deterrents against the use of SLAPP. Procedural reform should take place in the form of a UK Anti-SLAPP Law, which would apply to all laws utilised for SLAPP, which go beyond libel into privacy and data protection. In addition, greater oversight of law firms and PR companies, together with stronger anti-corruption enforcement measures, are required to ensure dirty money is not being used to stifle investigations into corruption or other crimes. Ultimately, action must be urgently taken to prevent the UK’s laws from being abused to suppress information, bully journalists, and restrict media freedom and ensure that access to justice is more equitable for all in society, not just those wealthy enough to afford it.

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