New journalists' safety tracker to help monitor SLAPPS

  • 03 May 2024

NUJ reveals aim to gather more data about incidents of 'lawfare'

Journalists who receive Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPS) will be able to log them in a new safety tracker being developed by the NUJ that aims to gather more data about incidents of “lawfare” as well as protect reporters from physical and online intimidation.

Speaking at a World Press Freedom Day event, Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ General Secretary said she hopes that the new online tool “will give a much clearer sense of the problem” of SLAPPS.

She explained: “We’re working together with other organisations to try and generate much more data…One of the things the NUJ is doing as part of our wider work on the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists is [developing] a tracker. As well as instances of physical and online harrassment and intimidation of journalists it’s very much focused on this ‘lawfare’ body of intimidation, harassment and abuse.”

“One of the things that we’re hoping that will change the culture a bit is that journalists will think to log that incident in their working life and see the value in being part of generating that data, so we’ve got a much clearer sense of the problem and any growth in that problem or spikes in particular places.”

It is hoped the online tracker will launch late summer/early autumn and be, “a bit of a one-stop shop for journalists in terms of all the different advice and guidance and support that’s out there and things that are undermining journalists’ safety.  I very much think this kind of behaviour in terms of the ‘lawfare’ space undermines their safety and their work.”

When asked by the chair of the online panel event, Dr Irini Katsirea , Reader in International Media Law at the University of Sheffield, if the tracker could have the effect of “naming and shaming people - would it have any effect on these powerful people who use SLAPPS?”, Stanistreet responded: “It isn’t pinned down what we might do with that [data] but I think it’s going to be a useful body of statistics [for] the government’s committee and the different stakeholders involved in it that might do some of the work and I certainly wouldn’t be averse to naming and shaming where you see instances arising. 

“I do think the dial has to shift…I  think the lawyers involved in that kind of work deserve more scrutiny and more naming and shaming as well in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not, particularly when it’s something that has the capacity to be very undermining in any democracy in terms of impairing the ability of journalists and publishers to do their jobs freely.

“So I think we should be speaking out as much as we possibly can in terms of where that interference is stemming from. Hopefully more data and the ability to analyse that and drill down into it more might help us.”

Susan Coughtrie, Foreign Policy Centre director and co-chair of the Anti-SLAPP Coalition, said many journalists were initially not keen to speak about receiving SLAPP letters but there has now been “a shift in people talking about it” as more SLAPPS letters have been sent - so much so “it’s become almost routine”.

Gill Phillips, editorial legal consultant at Guardian News & Media, also said there “wasn’t the volume” before: “There wasn’t the collective feel that there is today about the volume of what feels like this abusive litigation by particularly identifiable groups and organisations. 

“There seems to be much more of this.”

The panel - organised by Bonavero Institute of Human Rights and the Centre for Freedom of the Media - discussed the normalisation and professionalisation of SLAPPS in the legal industry and the effect of them on journalists, particularly freelance ones, who then may self-censor on topics or individuals that routinely send lengthy legal letters.

Sayra Tekin, director of legal for the News Media Association, said: “Law firms have found how to navigate to the best advantage for wealthy clients to, and I quote, ‘reputation manage’ using the law. It’s a sanitisation mechanism being advertised. Kind of like tax loopholes and innovative taxing, it’s an innovative use of the law for those who have the money because as the law stands it is permitted.

“News is a perishable commodity, it is time limited and the longer you delay it the less value it has. Therefore mechanisms have developed…fuelled by these legal reputation management departments to delay, to intimidate but also to push costs up.” 

Stanistreet said: “The point about professionalisation is an important one because it has kind of become normalised, as if it’s part of that suite of reputation management legitimate acts [carried out] on behalf of clients. 

“And if you’re freelance there are added complexities as well because of the sheer amount of time….these are not intended to reach a sensible solution between somebody who’s sent a legal letter and the reporter or publisher - they are designed to drown them in paperwork and correspondence.”

She said the changes in corporate business models have also played a part: “In the same way we’ve seen lots of cuts and restructures that have affected the number of journalists and their ability to do their job we’ve also seen parallel cuts in legal budgets in those publishers as well” which can make publishers, “for understandable reasons, more risk-averse. It’s really demoralising and frustrating for reporters caught in that…and absolutely does have a chilling effect”.

Tekin added: “We definitely need more legislation and in more than one area. We’re talking about an abuse of process. There’s a private members bill going through Parliament at the moment which, as drafted, lacks teeth. We’re talking about redressing a balance in power and closing loopholes in rules that the civil procedure rules are not currently  able to do at the moment and judges aren’t empowered to do.”

She also said regulatory action is needed and the Anti-SLAPP Coalition has been working with the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority to take steps: ”If it’s going to affect your reputation as a solicitor to take on these cases you might think twice and if these cases aren’t taken on there’s going to be less prevalence of them. 

“So we need scrutiny but to achieve that we need regulatory changes as well as legislative changes. As well as the non-legislative ones being undertaken by the cross-departmental SLAPPS task force. But lots of those will be ineffective if we don’t get legislation at the same time.”

In a second session - about legislative changes needed -  Dr Peter Coe, Associate Professor at Birmingham Law School and independent member of the Council of Europe’s Expert Committee on SLAPPs, said, “legislation alone isn’t going to deal with” the issue and he described the UK as a “SLAPPS hotbed”.

Rebecca Moosavian, Leeds University Associate Professor in Law, said there should be “some sort of standard wording” when “suspicious conduct” is suspected, “that allows these cases to be tracked”. She also argued for the SRA to “have an active role reviewing those cases” to see if there are “professional conduct issues” and wondered it should be declared if a claimant is working “with a reputation management firm…an area we know very little about.” 

The discussion is timely as SLAPPS, and what progress has been made on them, will be discussed by the House of Lords Communications Committee on 7 May.

The committee is holding two sessions that Coughtrie and Tekin, amongst others, will be giving evidence to. 


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