Nick Cohen

The bravery of Carole Cadwalladr

The bravery of Carole Cadwalladr
Carole Cadwalladr (Credit: Getty images)
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Carole Cadwalladr’s victory over Arron Banks is a triumph for free speech that has come at a cost no free society should bear. For the courts to rule on a passing remark she made in a 2019 TED talk and a tweet about the Leave.EU tycoon, who gave the pro-Brexit campaign the largest donation in British political history, has cost Banks somewhere between £750,000 and £1 million. Cadwalladr’s costs must be about the same, and it is very unlikely that the court will order that she and her supporters be reimbursed all their money. So we are talking about between £1.5 and £2 million for a single case.

For three years, as a friend and colleague of Cadwalladr's, I've seen how lawyers have dominated her life. Discussion of Russian influence on British politics was chilled, not only by Banks’s action but by the Kremlin’s pet energy company Rosneft and several Russian billionaires suing Catherine Belton and the publishers of Putin’s People; a post-Soviet mining conglomerate’s action against Tom Burgis and the publishers of his study of kleptocracy; and the general fear the lawyers incubate that if you take on the super-rich you risk losing everything.

We are meant to have the rule of law in England and Wales. But it is a law the overwhelming majority of English and Welsh people cannot begin to afford. In 2011, Kenneth Clarke, the then justice secretary, announced: 

'The UK should be lawyer and adviser to the world'.

The courts should become a luxury product, like prime property in Mayfair or Beluga caviar, sold in the global marketplace, and with prices to match, rather than an affordable means of delivering justice to the people of this country. You have to be very rich or very brave not to back away.

Carole Cadwalladr was brave. Banks sued her personally. She had said as an aside in a TED talk entitled 'Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy' that: 'I am not even going to get into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian Government,' and repeated much the same in a follow-up tweet.

Rather than sue the owners of the immensely successful TED franchise, Banks, who has always strongly denied the allegations against him and has indicated he will likely appeal against the judgement this week, went for her. Most of us would have backed down and offered a grovelling apology in the face of the stupendous financial penalty if we fought and lost such a case. Thanks to her inner-strength and the generosity of her social media followers, Cadwalladr decided to fight.

Decisions by the courts then made it as hard as possible for her to win. Like an occultist searching for hidden meanings, Mr Justice Saini ruled in 2019 that Cadwalladr had not simply claimed that Banks had told lies about his covert relationship with the Russian government. Using the near magical power an English legal education gives learned judges, he decided that what her statements had actually meant was that Banks was telling lies 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'.

Cadwalladr could not defend the judge's interpretation of what she had said and apologised to Banks for that reading of her remarks. Banks could have left it there but, somewhat stupidly as events were to turn out, chose not to.

I have seen some right-wingers on social media saying that she got off on the weird technicality of a 'public interest defence' in relation to that TED talk. There is nothing weird or easy about it. In her judgement this week, Mrs Justice Steyn said Cadwalladr had to prove that she was talking about a matter of public interest, which she clearly was, and that she had reasonably believed that publishing the words sued over by Banks was in the public interest.

The judge then went through all the evidence. It was uncontested that Putin was trying to influence elections in the West. Theresa May, hardly a woke leftist, had warned when she was prime minister that the Kremlin was:

'Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.'

Leaked emails from Banks led Cadwalladr to consider that 'there had been a series of invitations from and to (the Russian) Ambassador Yakovenko, many of which were accepted' (and that Banks 'had been offered preferential shares in an investment scheme to consolidate several Russian goldmines and the privatisation of a state-owned Russian diamond company,' which he declined.)

Let us just pause for a moment and imagine what the reaction of Conservatives would have been to the revelation that Jeremy Corbyn had several meetings with the Russian ambassador. Do you think they would have gone for the journalist who broke the story as Banks’s claque in the right-wing press did? Do you think they would have accepted claims from Corbyn’s defenders that it was a non-story pumped up to damage the left?

One of the judge's conclusions was that Cadwalladr had reasonable grounds for believing that statements made by Banks regarding his relationship with the Russian government were inaccurate. Admittedly, there was a change in circumstances in April 2020, after the Electoral Commission confirmed it accepted the National Crime Agency's conclusions that it had found no evidence that Banks had broken the law – meaning that Cadwalladr could no longer rely on the public interest defence. But by then the TED talk was in the past, and the judge found that from that point on Banks had failed to prove that he had suffered serious harm because of Cadwalladr’s comments in the TED talk.

Some of Cadwalladr's online critics are saying that this verdict will reinforce the belief of centrist fanatics that Brexit was caused by a Russian hybrid warfare operation. Such people exist, I concede. But although I see them on Twitter I rarely see them in the flesh. (Speaking of Twitter, I noticed that Banks once tweeted that 'Ukraine is to Russia as the Isle of Wight is to the UK. It's Russian'. That was in 2017. Five years on, it’s a line the people of Ukraine are dying in their tens of thousands to refute.)

Rather than focus on such a fringe, supporters of Boris Johnson would do better to ask why Russia was so keen on Brexit. The answer is all too obvious: because it would weaken the UK. If you want evidence for the mess it has caused, just look around you.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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