Cadwalladr won the 2018 Orwell Prize for her reporting on the Cambridge Analytica scandal and big-data influence on the Brexit referendum. Her reports fit like a glove on the overarching narrative, which claims that unfavorable voting outcomes in the West are products of clandestine Russian psyops and cyber action. “Brexit and Trump were intimately entwined … Brexit was the petri dish for Trump,” she said in a TED Talk last year.
One particular person was featured heavily in her reporting. Arron Banks, a prominent donor of the Leave campaign, who was insinuated to be a go-between to pour Russian money into making Britain leave the EU. Banks saw some of the things Cadwalladr said as libelous and filed a lawsuit against her.
The latest hearing on Thursday appears to be a win for the financier. “It’s hugely disappointing that she couldn’t just apologise months ago and draw a line under this whole episode,” he tweeted on Thursday, adding a link to a story at the right-wing website ‘Guido Fawkes.’
“Cadwalladr finally admitted what we all knew, there was no evidence to back up her claims that the Russians financed the Brexit campaign or that Arron Banks was involved in shady deals with the Russians,” the report said, adding that now she will have to cover £62,000 ($83,000) in court costs.
The story is based on her lawyers allegedly suddenly removing “Truth Defence and the Limitation Defence” on the eve of the hearing.
Fellow Brexiteer Nigel Farage also congratulated Banks on Twitter, while some other critics of the journalist wondered if she should now be stripped of her Orwell award. Cadwalladr is yet to comment on the development, but her recent tweets showcased her distaste for British libel laws and for the “greatest British bloodsport” that they enable.
Earlier this month, Cadwalladr had to apologize for falsely claiming that Banks had broken the law. The Leave campaign was investigated by the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) for alleged violations of electoral funding rules. Some “technical breaches” were indeed found, but they didn’t merit further criminal investigation. No evidence was found that Banks had received money from any third party to fund Brexit, the investigators said in September last year.
The entire narrative about Russian online meddling in Brexit was likewise given the cold shower last month, when the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) published its report on Cambridge Analytica. The now-defunct firm was widely portrayed in the Western media as a provider of big data insights that helped Russia sway both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 presidential election. No proof of this was found by the British watchdog.
The April 2019 TED Talk speech and a tweet that Cadwalladr posted to promote it are the focus of Banks’ lawsuit against her, after he dropped two other elements of the claim in January. She spoke at length of how Banks was under NCA investigation and had lied “about his covert relationship with the Russian government,” throwing in Farage’s reported meetings with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and Trump aide Roger Stone for good measure.
“And we know it’s the same people, the same companies, the same data, the same techniques, the same use of hate and fear,” she said.
The court process revolves around the differences in how the two parties perceive Cadwalladr’s words. High Court Justice Saini even had to pass a ruling last year explaining how he understood them for the purpose of the litigation.
The Guardian Media Group, which owns The Observer, does not cover Cadwalladr’s legal costs in defending the case. The journalist, who believes Banks wants to intimidate her and ruin her financially, is trying to crowdsource the effort and has raised at least £532,337 (~$710,000) on two funding pages so far.
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