The first high profile libel trial of 2022 begins today before Mrs Justice Steyn in Court 13 at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.  The controversial multi millionaire Brexiteer, Arron Banks, is suing investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, for libel.

The case arises out of a Ted Talk entitled “Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy” given by Ms Cadwalladr in April 2019.  In the course of this talk she said

“And I am not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian Government.”

Two months later, after Mr Banks’ solicitors had sent her a letter before action, Ms Cadwalladr tweeted

Oh Arron. This is too tragic. Nigel Farage’s secret funder Arron Banks has sent me a pre-action letter this morning; he’s suing me over this TED talk. If you haven’t watched it please do. I say he lied about his contact with Russian govt. Because he did.

Proceedings were issued on 12 July 2019.  A trial of a preliminary issue took place before Saini J on 4 December 2019.  In a judgment handed down on 12 December 2019 ([2019] EWHC 3451 (QB)) he held that these two publications meant

“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”.

This was a departure from Mr Banks’ originally pleaded case that the words meant that “that the Claimant has repeatedly lied about the nature and/or extent of his relationship with the Russian Government“.

Mr Banks has always strongly denied any illegal Russian links – although he admits meeting Russian embassy officials on a number of occasions.

The Defence was served on 4 February 2020.  Ms Cadwalladr originally pleaded a defence of “truth” but this was withdrawn in November 2020.  The remaining defence is “Publication on a matter of public interest” under section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013.

The central issue at the trial is likely to be whether it was reasonable for Ms Cadwalladr to believe that the publication of the statements she made was in the public interest.  The case is listed for 4 days, 14 and 17 to 19 January 2022.

The case is controversial, involving as it does a claim by a wealthy businessman against an individual, freelance, investigative journalist.  In a statement last year, the Editors of the Guardian and the Observer said

“This case is a very worrying example of a wealthy person singling out an individual journalist and using the law to stifle legitimate debate and silence public interest journalism.”

In 2019 a number of NGOs issued a statement calling for the claim to be dropped and for the UK Governmnet to ensure that Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation is not used to stifle debate and public interest reporting.  OpenDemocracy had a piece yesterday by Mary Fitzgerald entitled “Arron Banks vs Carole Cadwalladr shows how badly UK is failing press freedom” noting that Ms Cadwalladr has been the subject of misogynist attacks and is not supported by most of the mainstream media.  Ms Cadwalladr has  a “gofundme” page which has raised £430,000.