The trial in the libel case of Banks v Cadwalladr began on Friday before Mrs Justice Steyn. The Judge heard opening submissions from counsel for the claimant and the defendant and Mr Banks gave evidence and was cross-examined. His evidence will continue on Monday.
In his opening, counsel for Mr Banks, Mr William McCormick QC, argued that Ms Cadwalladr’s claim that the action was a “SLAPP” suit (a strategic litigation against public participation) was misconceived. She had, he said, accepted that she had made serious allegations which were published on a massive scale. The suggestion that the claim was issued in bad faith to stop her reporting was a “complete fabrication”.
Mr McCormick accepted that Ms Cadwalladr was speaking on matters of public interest in the April 2019 TED talk which forms the basis of the claim – including the debate about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data and whether there was Russian or other foreign funding involved in Bexit. But, he continued, the “public interest defence” did not mean that a journalist could say “I am entitled to say effectively what I like”. He argued that Ms Cadwalladr’s defence under section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013 could not succeed because she cannot reasonably have believed that what she said about Mr Banks was in the public interest. He described Ms Cadwalladr’s defence as “extreme” and “wholly unrealistic” in that it would enable her to continue to publish false statements.
He said that Mr Banks accepted that as a public figure who took a leading role in the Brexit referendum he had to have a thick skin but there were boundaries to be observed.
In opening the case for Ms Cadwalladr her counsel, Mr Gavin Millar QC, said that what she said “she was legally entitled to say as part of a discussion of matters of the highest public interest”. These were issues of campaign finance, foreign money and the use of social media messaging and personal data in the context of the EU referendum.
Mr Millar drew attention to the fact that Ms Cadwalladr’s statements in her TED were not new and had been covered by both her and other media organisations in the two previous years . He said the claim against her personally was an “attempt to stymie her investigative journalism about [Mr Banks] and make other investigative journalists wary about pursuing theirs”.
He argued that the court had to make allowances for editorial judgment and that the comment about Mr Banks was an “important part” of the talk and “falls clearly within the margin of journalistic/editorial judgment”. He said Ms Cadwalladr made the editorial decision to include Banks in the talk because he was relevant to the relationship between the Trump and Leave.EU campaigns, which she considered “helped to convey the public interest issues to an international audience in an engaging way”.
It was also argued on behalf of Ms Cadwalladr that Mr Banks had “no meaningful reputation” to be seriously harmed.
Mr Banks gave evidence and was cross-examined by Mr Millar. He was questioned about his connections to Russia. Asked about why he had previously suggested the Russians had invited him to a meeting with its ambassador when it was actually initiated by Andy Wigmore, Banks denied it was because the former explanation was more palatable, saying he had simply misremembered. He was asked what he expected the nature of the meeting to be when he was invited to the Russian Ambassadors’ residence in 2015. He said: “I thought that if there was an invitation to visit the Russian ambassador then it would be very interesting. I certainly wasn’t overthinking it the way you are suggesting. I didn’t automatically think there was a hidden agenda.”
The case continues on Monday 17 January 2022 .
There were reports of the hearing in the Guardian, the Press Gazette and the Daily Telegraph.