There have been millions of words written about the story of how Cambridge Analytica (CA) was employed by the Trump campaign to affect the 2016 US election and the UK’s Brexit referendum via the use of millions of Facebook profiles it had illegally bought, not least our recent review and analysis of the recent Netflix documentary about that saga. The controversy became so big that Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, was dragged before Congress and multiple legal investigations are still ongoing.
A major player in that movie and the ongoing story was, and still is, Pulitzer-nominated Carole Cadwalladr, the freelance Guardian newspaper journalist who was the first to tease apart the mess of threads liking CA, Trump and Brexit.
Cadwalladr recently made a highly regarded TED Talk which went viral on the subject, and which repeated evidence published by the UK’s Parliament about a series of “covert meetings” businessman Aaron Banks, a major Brexit campaigner and funder, had with the Russian government. The talk, “Facebook’s role in Brexit and its threat to democracy,” has been viewed more than two million times.
Cadwalladr’s reporting on the funding of the Brexit campaign and alleged links between Nigel Farage, Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and Russian influence on the 2016 US election led to Banks – an ally of Donald Trump – becoming the subject of a serious criminal investigation by the National Crime Agency (the UK equivalent of the FBI).
Banks has now launched defamation proceedings against Cadwalladr over the allegations about his financial and political links, but, in particular, for that one remark about meetings with Russians, quoted in the Netflix documentary. Moreover, he is lodging a personal case against her, rather than suing the outlets that published her work, or TED, which hosted a speech at the heart of his case, and which would normally have the resources to fight a legal battle.
In order to support her journalism while she fights this libel case, and to increase resources for her investigation, Cadwalladr has now launched a GoFundMe campaign as she faces the possibility of a million-pound libel bill.
While her legal team are confident that the case is “entirely without merit”, Cadwalladr (a freelance, not staff, reporter) could be bankrupted by Banks’ legal costs, which are expected to rise into seven figures.
The result could mean that she is tied up in litigation for months in a move that press freedom organizations have called an “abuse of law” to “silence a journalist” .
“Arron Banks is not suing TED or the Guardian and Observer, though it is the extensive investigations that we have published and that have helped trigger several serious criminal investigations that has prompted this lawsuit,” she said in a statement.
“Instead, he has chosen to go after me as an individual in a clear attempt to intimidate and harass me. It’s extremely concerning that a millionaire can use the law in this way. This isn’t just an attack on me, it’s an attack on journalism.”
Fellow journalists and press freedom campaigners have spoken out in support of Cadwalladr in an open letter to the former Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. The letter identifies Banks’s claim as an example of “strategic litigation against public participation” (“SLAPP”) lawsuits, “a means of intimidating and silencing journalists working in the public interest”.
Banks’ spokesman, Leave.EU communications director Andy Wigmore, has said Banks’ lawsuit was about preventing Cadwalladr from continuing “to make assertions which are factually far-fetched and just not true”.