Government must act now to clamp down on Slapps
The NUJ is deeply concerned about the shocking reports revealing the UK government helped Yevgeny Prigozhin, a sanctioned ally of Putin ally and leader of the mercenary army Wager Group, sue British journalist Eliot Higgins.
According to openDemocracy the UK Treasury issued special licences in 2021 to let the oligarch override sanctions and launch an aggressive legal campaign against Higgins in the London courts. While the minister refused to discuss the case, during an urgent question in Parliament, James Cartlidge, the exchequer secretary to the treasury, said the government is reviewing its protocol for deciding whether to grant such licences to sanctioned individuals.
Prigozhin had instructed Discreet Law to bring defamation proceedings against Eliot Higgins, the journalist who founded the publishers Bellingcat. Higgins believes it was an act of intimidation to sue him personally for tweeting articles, rather than the Netherlands-based investigative website. Although the case was dropped, he told the BBC that he was left with £70,000 in legal costs. Discreet Law has been under investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) since May 2022 following a formal complaint from Bellingcat.
Séamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary, said:
“The cases we hear about are just the tip of the iceberg as journalists, particularly freelances, are forced to back off when faced with aggressive and expensive lawsuits. The government has promised a crackdown on corrupt elites abusing UK legal system to silence critics. It needs to act now to stop the practice of Slapps [strategic lawsuits against public participation], which allows those with deep pockets to threaten the very future of media organisations and press freedom, and proceed with legislation.”
Paul Philip, the chief executive of the SRA, told peers on the communications and digital committee that his organisation had investigated complaints of alleged Slapps involving at least 40 law firms in England and Wales over the past 12 months.
Witnesses to the peers’ inquiry into the use of lawfare to silence critics, on Tuesday 24 January, also included Professor Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ’s Ethics Council, Susan Coughtrie, director at Foreign Policy Centre and Catrin Evans KC, of Matrix Chambers. They were asked about the government’s proposed anti-SLAPP legislation set in November, which includes a three-part test to determine whether a case should be thrown out immediately or allowed to progress. They all agreed that the devil was in the detail, and they didn’t yet have that detail as the bill has not been published.
Professor Frost explained that in most cases the use of Slapps is not to pursue a lawsuit, instead pressure is put on journalists, many of whom are not well paid, by the sending of aggressive lawyers’ letters threatening expensive litigation in order to silence them. NUJ is part of an alliance which has published a model anti-Slapps law.
Conservative MP Bob Seely has put forward a private member’s bill, the Defamation, Privacy, Freedom of Expression, Data Protection, Legal Services and Private Investigators Bill, to penalise people who use the court system to intimidate journalists – he wants to put pressure on the government to publish its own promised anti-Slapps legislation. He also accused the legal profession of turning a blind eye to the practice, saying: “One wonders at the conniving silence of the Bar Council, the Law Society and Solicitors Regulatory Authority, which seem to spend their time doing very little regulation.”