Cadwalladr reports on Arron Banks’ Russia links of huge public interest, court hears

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Reporting by the Observer and Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr on the “covert relationship” between the multimillionaire Brexit backer Arron Banks and the Russian government was of the greatest public interest imaginable, her lawyer has told the high court.

Banks, who donated a record £8m to the Leave.EU campaign group, is suing Cadwalladr for defamation over two instances – one in a Ted Talk and one in a related tweet – in which she said the businessman was lying about his relationship with the Russian state.

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In closing written submissions on Friday, Gavin Millar QC, for Cadwalladr, told the high court in London that Banks and his close associate Andy Wigmore, director of communications for Leave.EU, had given “contradictory and misleading accounts about his [Banks’s] meetings with Russian officials and the extent of his relationship with the Russian state” as well as who had initiated the contact with the Russian government and the reason for it.

Millar said Cadwalladr’s reporting about weaknesses in rules governing campaign expenditure, and the lack of accountability in respect of social media targeting and advertising, raised issues that “threaten the integrity of our democratic processes”.

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He added: “The Ted Talk was unquestionably speech which addressed matters of the greatest possible importance to the organisation of the political life of the country. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of matters in which the public interest in their being published and the subject of debate would be greater.”

He said the action was based on “what amounts to one sentence in a talk”. At a preliminary hearing, the meaning of Cadwalladr’s words, which are the subject of the lawsuit, was determined by a judge to be that Banks lied about a secret relationship with the Russian government “in relation to acceptance of foreign funding of electoral campaigns in breach of the law on such funding”.

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Cadwalladr has said she did not intend to imply that Banks had received Russian money, nor lied about receiving Russian money, only about the extent of his contacts with Russia.

Millar said: “The fact that the court determined a different meaning which the words complained of may bear for the hypothetical ordinary reasonable reader/viewer does not render the defendant’s belief unreasonable.”

As well as relying on a public interest defence, Millar argued that Banks could not show “serious harm” as required by law because he had “a generally bad reputation in respect of the sector of his life with which this claim is concerned, namely his role as a funder/leader of Leave.EU”.

In his written submissions, William McCormick QC, for Banks, told the court that the threshold of serious harm had been met in terms of damage to his client’s reputation, stressing that the Ted Talk had been viewed by a “new audience who were not likely (or less likely) to have heard about the allegations against C (the claimant)”.

McCormick accused Cadwalladr of having “failed to exercise proper journalistic standards”. He said for her to suggest she had never intended to suggest Banks had received Russian money to fund the Brexit campaign was “unreal” and described references to a covert relationship as “ridiculous”.

McCormick said: “What this action complains of is not D’s (the defendant’s) investigative work, but the fact that what she said in 2019 (and continues to say in 2022) makes a seriously defamatory allegation for which her investigation provides no proper basis.”

He told the court that although Cadwalladr had accepted the court’s interpretation of the meaning of the words in the Ted Talk, she had failed to take steps to have the offending words removed or the video footnoted. “In this situation, there’s nothing else my client can do but seek the court’s assistance to have the situation remedied,” he said.

Mrs Justice Steyn reserved judgment.

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