Brendan O’Neill

Carole Cadwalladr’s staggering victory against Arron Banks

This verdict is a chance for those who have been rude about Brexiteers to come clean

Carole Cadwalladr's staggering victory against Arron Banks
Carole Cadwalladr (Credit: Getty images)
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Arron Banks, the pugnacious Brexiteer, has lost his claim for defamation against Carole Cadwalladr, the darling of the Brexit-loathing bourgeoisie. Banks brought the action in relation to two public utterances made by Ms Cadwalladr. First, her TED talk of 2019, in which she said: 

‘And I’m not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government.’ 

And second, a tweet she posted, also in 2019, in which she linked to her TED talk and said: 

‘If you haven’t watched it please do. I say he lied about his contact with the Russian govt. Because he did.’

Mrs Justice Steyn ruled that the TED talk was indeed defamatory of Banks, who has always strongly denied the allegations against him, but she accepted Ms Cadwalladr’s ‘public interest’ defence. 

Then it got weirder. Mrs Justice Steyn rejected the claim that Cadwalladr’s tweet was degrading to Banks’ reputation on the basis that it would only have been seen by Cadwalladr’s very online fanclub, most of whom will already have thought Banks was dodgy.

For that reason, the tweet will have been ‘of no consequence to him’, the judge said. Citing Banks’ own QC, William McCormick, she said ‘it may reasonably be inferred that the vast majority of the defendant’s followers on Twitter 'are likely to be persons within her echo chamber' and 'it’s probably right that they wouldn’t have thought very much of (Banks) by that time'.’

What’s strange about all of this is that Cadwalladr did not, in the libel action, defend what she said about Banks and Russia as true. And yet she seems at liberty to say it a) because she’s a journalist and b) because it was only in the echoey Twittersphere. 

This is all pretty staggering. It could set a problematic precedent. In people's minds, if not in actual law. What about a right-wing tweeter whose followers all think Jeremy Corbyn is a terrible bloke — can he say anything he likes about Corbyn? Or, more pointedly, what about a super-Brexity tweeter whose followers don't like Carole Cadwalladr — can he say that Cadwalladr is funded by the Saudis, even though she isn’t?

Call me a cynic, but I’m not convinced this seeming new defence of ‘It was only Twitter, m’lud’ will be equally applied. I guess we’ll find out soon enough when someone takes to his or her virtual echo chamber to say something about a public figure that is not true.

I am not a fan of England’s archaic libel laws. My view is that you should never sue people for what they say, even if it is untrue or hurtful. Counter their codswallop in the public square instead.

Here’s the thing, though: there has been defamation over the past six years — lots and lots of it — and the main target of the defamation was Brexit voters: the 17.4 million, we good people whose only offence was to oppose the Euro-oligarchy. If Cadwalladr and her quite strange cheerleaders in the Brexit-hating online middle classes defamed anyone, it wasn’t Banks — it was the masses, the electorate, me and you. 

Their entire Russia shtick was premised on the idea that us plebs, with our uncultured, malleable minds, were led like donkeys by mysterious Russian forces on the interweb. Indeed, the FBPE (Follow Back, Pro-European) cult’s obsession with individuals like Banks — and also Farage and Rees-Mogg and the rest — was driven by a conviction that these well-educated and moneyed men led the masses astray, dragging our dumb behinds into this terrible Brexitland we all now inhabit.

There was always a stark elitism in extreme Remainerism. It may have been presented as a heroic journalistic effort to uncover links between wealthy pro-Brexit Brits and sinister Putinists in Moscow, but its foundational belief was that someone somewhere must have warped the tiny minds of the British masses to make them do something as stupid as vote for Brexit. 

Behind all the talk of shady businessmen and dastardly Ruskies and other faceless elements who apparently made Brexit happen, there lurked a deeper, and dare I say defamatory, view of ordinary people as witless, gullible and probably racist. That’s the defamation that needs to stop. We don’t need a judge to tell us it was wrong for members of the political class and the media elite to depict the electorate as a dumb, vile horde. We know it was wrong.

Ms Cadwalladr, when will you acknowledge that what you and others implied about us, the people, was wrong too?