‘Brexit bad boy’ libel defeat hailed as victory for media
A self-proclaimed ‘Brexit bad boy’ who promised to wreak ‘havoc and mischief’ in politics here has lost a long-running libel case against a journalist who claimed to have links to Russia. Media freedom advocates hail it as a victory for journalism. But is it?
“There was no way we wanted our names leaked and splashed all over the papers, that we paid money to a political party…because once you do that in this country, you’re crucified,” Sir Peter Talley said in testimony at the trial of two men accused of deceptively obtaining money paid into bank accounts associated with the New Zealand First Party.
Many of New Zealand’s dozens of other First Party donors feel the same as Sir Peter, but the two-week trial could still last a month.
Under the headline The Money Class Who Funded Winston Peters, Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy described them this week as “a small group of wealthy businessmen who banded together…to make Winston Peters kingmaker – and get a change of government”.
But in mid-2020, the so-called Bad Boys of Brexit were only too happy to make it known that they supported NZ First and its leader.
Multimillionaires Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore funded the major Leave.EU campaign, which was fined for overspending by the UK Electoral Commission – but only after Britons were persuaded to vote for Brexit in 2016.
In July 2020 they told a UK newspaper they were sending a team to New Zealand to help NZ First in the upcoming election here by creating “mischief, chaos and guerrilla warfare”.
In a bizarre interview with Newshub Europe correspondent Lloyd Burr, they promised to deliver ‘Winston on Steroids’ and at least 13% of the vote for NZ First in 2020.
It turned out to be just bluster, but Arron Banks was back in the headlines this week in the UK when he lost a libel case in court there – a result some hailed as a major victory for freedom of the press.
In 2019, investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr – a key figure in exposing the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal – told a TED talk that Banks lied about a secret relationship with the Russian government.
His speech was based on years of reporting for British newspapers The Guardian and The Observer, but Arron Banks insisted he had no such ties to Russia and he personally sued her for defamation.
It was a long and expensive case to defend that forced Cadwalladr to crowdfund. She would have been financially and professionally ruined had she lost.
But this week a UK judge ruled that although the comments were harmful to Banks, Cadwallader acted in the public interest when she made the statement – as Banks was then under investigation by the National Crime Agency and the UK Electoral Commission.
And there was an unexpected Kiwi connection to it when New Zealand freelance journalist Tom Mutch – who recently reported on the ground on the war in Ukraine – revealed he was part of the story.
“It is obscene that a single-sentence libel case took three years and cost millions. A damning indictment from the UK courts,” he said on Twitter this week.
But the judgment also said the disputed claim damaged Banks’ reputation and Cadwalladr acknowledged she could not prove it.
Lawyers for Banks say Cadwalladr was not acting on behalf of a newspaper but rather as an individual when she made the allegations. Allegations previously published in the Observer were different from those made at the TED conference – and he could not sue the TED organization because it is based in the United States.
So was this really a big win for journalism and media freedom?
“It’s not necessarily about who said what, it’s the bigger question of why this has to end up in a High Court? Why does it have to cost millions of pounds to make this happen These huge legal battles that take place in courtrooms and are incredibly costly for everyone, both plaintiffs and defendants,” said Peter Geoghegan, director and editor of the Open Democracy Foundation of the UK, which also investigated foreign funding of politics there.
“People with power, money and influence have been able to sue investigative journalists, causing them enormous harm in many ways,” he said. Media monitoring.
“I think this is a really important moment for journalists, investigative reporters and others who have long argued that this public interest should be able to defend us much more than it currently does,” did he declare.
“It is important to enshrine in law the idea that there is a public interest in investigative journalism. There is no way you can see this as not being a victory for media freedom. I had a lot of threats hanging over me. It’s a very stressful and anxiety-provoking experience,” Geoghegan said.
On the BBC’s Media Show this week, Carol Cadwallader explained how the case had dominated her life and blocked her investigative journalism.
The UK’s National Union of Journalists said it was another example of ‘strategic public participation lawsuits’ – or SLAPP cases: legal cases brought against journalists or whistleblowers to silence them.
However, the judge in that libel trial said it was not really “fair or proper” to describe this as such a case.
“This is not the only libel case that has come before the UK courts’ libel law. We regularly receive legal threats from international oligarchs and people use the City of London to launder money,” Geoghegan said.
“It is rarely a real legal battle. What you have seen with Aaron Banks and Carole Cadwalladr and even with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in the UK courts is quite unusual. We rarely see defamation cases end up in court. They linger in the background for years and years, they take up a huge amount of journalistic time and resources. And that is their goal. They have a chilling effect on reporting,” he said.
Carol Cadwallader on the BBC Media Show, she was upset at the lack of coverage of the result. She said there were no news media reporters there on certain days during the trial, despite being the biggest political donor to any campaign in UK history, which had also influenced the Brexit vote.
“You have every right to report on court cases, but many reporters and editors were like, ‘Let’s not get too involved in this. Let’s not have any potential damage to us. You can never under -estimating the kinds of concerns publishers and titles have for this Hopefully that will change now as a result of this judgment – and journalists will see that there is tremendous value in reporting on these cases and doing showing solidarity with each other,” he said.