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UK Government launches taskforce to stop ‘devastating’ lawsuits against journalists

11 Sep 2023 4 minute read
Lucy Frazer, Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport. Photo Lucy North/PA Wire

The UK Government has launched a new taskforce which aims to put a stop to lawsuits that have a “devastating” impact on journalists.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer will meet groups from the media and legal sectors on Monday as they try to end legal threats, known as strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps).

This action is often used by wealthy individuals and firms to try to stop journalists or campaigners from exposing wrongdoing under defamation and privacy laws.

Ms Frazer said: “When I became culture secretary I vowed to stand up for independent voices and nurture a thriving media landscape which upholds and champions fearless truth telling.

“Slapps have led to journalists having to crowdfund their legal fees and some have even been forced to sell their homes – simply for doing their job.

“Working together with industry leaders, we will develop strong measures which enhance the freedom of the press to expose wrongdoing without fear of our justice system being abused to silence journalists.”

Russian oligarchs have previously used Slapps to silence critics in recent years.

Roman Abramovich

A defamation case by HarperCollins and author Catherine Belton was settled with Roman Abramovich, after her book Putin’s People: How The KGB Took Back Russia And Then Took On The West included claims he purchased Chelsea football club in 2003 at the Russian president’s command.

Ms Belton became an MBE for services to journalism in the New Year Honours list and previously urged the Government to introduce a law to tackle Slapps.

UK bureau director for Reporters Without Borders, Fiona O’Brien, said: “Slapps can have a devastating impact on the journalists involved and their ability to report freely on matters of public interest, so we’re very pleased to see the establishment of a taskforce that recognises them as a serious and pressing threat.

“This is a welcome step towards ensuring UK journalists are better protected from such abusive and damaging lawsuits.”

Her organisation is joined in the taskforce by groups such as the Society of Editors, the National Union of Journalists and the Law Society of England and Wales.

Earlier this year, the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill was amended to clamp down on Slapps that are related to economic crime, which the Government says are the vast majority of such cases brought to UK courts.

The Bill, which has completed its third reading in the House of Lords, is about establishing an early dismissal mechanism to make it easier for courts in England and Wales to quickly dismiss Slapps related to economic crime, according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

“The Government has also committed to legislating to tackle Slapps outside of economic crime as soon as parliamentary time allows”, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said.

Regulation

The new taskforce is set to commission research to investigate the prevalence of Slapps used against journalists and explore how legal services regulation could be used to prevent or mitigate the legal issue.

Alongside this, the body will draw up plans for new specialist training for judges and law professionals to help them easily identify and throw out Slapps and develop guidance to support journalists, publications or law professionals

A report, published in April, by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that 47.6% of worldwide respondents said that they or their media organisation were facing legal threats and since 2015 it concluded that Slapp cases have “increased substantially”.

The taskforce, to focus on non-legislative measures, will report on its findings in its 12-month term, DCMS said.


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Jeff
Jeff
7 months ago

Same government that let a Russian terror org boss take a Guardian Journo to court to shut him up just before Russia invaded Ukraine? Same government that sat by whilst a Brexit leave campaigner targeted a female journo after a TED talk? What evidence do they need, it is happening now. This is bluster. We have a system that allows this, they can stop it with legislation but it suits them to keep it but play pretend concern.

Fi yn unig
Fi yn unig
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeff

I think you’ve wrapped this up right there. Despite these good sounding noises coming from the successor to Dorries in her post and announcing scrapping the sale of Channel 4, I’m afraid she lost me with the phrase ‘upholds and champions fearless truth telling’. Now it may be that she herself is being genuine but I’m afraid you cannot make such a crass statement when you are a member of the Alternative Truth Party.

Ap Kenneth
Ap Kenneth
7 months ago

UK Libel is not a law that is compatible with free speech especially where there is a public interest such as childrens welfare or economic damage or malfeasance, the costs to defendants and damages awarded are extreme and do not represent the actual damage even if there is some damage.

Silenced!
Silenced!
7 months ago

These lawsuits are also used by public bodies unfairly targetted by ideologically often politically motivated attacks on vulnerable groups by such organs as the Telegraph, The Times, The Spectator and the Daily Mail.

One wonders why the government is so motivated on this all of a sudden. Lots more indefensible politicised lies they don’t want scrutinised perhaps?

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