Arron Banks v Carole CadwalladrThe First Two Days
John Sweeney gives his first impressions of the landmark libel case taking place in Court 13 of the Royal Courts of Justice
The libel action brought by Arron Banks, the man behind Britain’s biggest political donation, ever, of £8 million to fund the Brexit campaign, against Observer and Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr is big potatoes. At stake are lawyers’ costs of £1.75 million, the ability for reporters to investigate Russian interference in our democracy and free speech in Britain in the 21st Century.
If multi-millionaire Banks loses, he may find a way through; if Cadwalladr loses she will go bankrupt.
Going into the Royal Courts of Justice, Arron Banks spotted me: “No snow on my boots, John,” he said. (When I worked at BBC Newsnight I reported on Banks’ brushes with the Russian state, often using that phrase.) Banks was right: he was not wearing boots but black patent shoes, the kind sported by a down-market funeral director from Devizes with a nice line in mahogany-effect coffins. Also, there was no snow on them.
Banks’ shtick in the witness box is ‘I am patriotic’, up for free speech and banter. But when Cadwalladr set out evidence suggesting that his relationship with Russia was suspicious, that crossed a line. Banks is suing not her normal paper, the Observer, but Cadwalladr in person over one sentence in a TED Talk in April 2019 where she said: “And I’m not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government.”
The TEDTalk – ‘Facebook’s Role in Brexit and the Threat to Democracy’ – has been viewed 4.3 million times. Two months later Cadwalladr tweeted a link to the TED Talk and Banks is suing her over that too.
Three models of free speech are up for grabs, the Russian, the old British and the American. In Russia, if you speak freely about power, you may die; in Britain, free speech is not an unfettered right; in the United States, free speech has been enhanced by Big Tech’s platforms, such as Twitter and TED Talks. Banks is suing Cadwalladr in a British court for what she said on American platforms about the threat posed by secret Russian power.
Banks’ QC, William McCormick, in legal argy-bargy before his client took the stand, argued that Cadwalladr had stated that his client is a Russian agent “or, in the vernacular, that Brexit was funded by Russian money”. The QC went on to argue that this was not a SLAPP case (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) but that since the evidence that Russian money bought Brexit “didn’t amount to a hill of beans”, Cadwalladr failed as a professional journalist to be fair to Banks, and that meant she had could not invoke public interest as a defence.
For Cadwalladr, Gavin Millar QC fired back, suggesting that Banks had been deliberately opaque and his story had changed. For example, he originally admitted to one sole boozy lunch with the Russian ambassador; that later became Team Banks meeting the Russians eleven times. Millar added that Banks was a political actor, and so his client’s reporting was squarely in the public interest.
Banks is good at slapstick, getting easy laughs out of opening a water bottle or shifting his TV monitor so that the court could see him. His accent is Hampshire or West Country, his tone often light-hearted but with a hint of menace.
Questioned by Millar about his book, The Bad Boys of Brexit, Banks described it as a “light-hearted account of the campaign, a Jilly Cooper novel without the obvious”. Millar reminded Banks that the book boasts a photograph of him and President-to-be Donald Trump in the gold lift in Trump Tower. Millar recalled that a few days later he hobnobbed with the Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, in London, and that after that Banks retweeted tweets by RT (formerly Russia Today) and the Russian ambassador.
Banks, never ruffled, said that he sometimes retweets the Guardian, “even Carole” and that doesn’t mean he agreed with it or her. To be fair to Banks, one got the impression that, litigation aside, he quite liked Cadwalladr– and she, him.
The Bad Boys of Brexit referred to Banks meeting a shady guy called Oleg from the Russian embassy at the UKIP party conference in Doncaster. Banks explained the book’s ghostwriter, Isabel Oakeshott, had been using her “artistic license”. Questioned about who Oleg really was, Banks said he couldn’t remember. (He was not Oleg but Alexander Udod, later one of 23 suspected spies expelled from Britain after the Skripal poisonings.)
Not remembering was a trope Banks repeated, again and again. What was said at the lunch with the Russian ambassador where he drank Stalin’s vodka? He couldn’t recall. Later, the Russian ambassador introduced him to Siman Povarenkin, a Russian businessman in charge of six gold mines who made Mr Banks an offer he refused. Banks couldn’t recall the details.
On Monday 17 January, on the second day of the trial, Banks was still at a loss to remember very much. He did recall the leak of a stash of his emails proving that his contacts with the Russians went far beyond one boozy lunch with the ambassador, accusing Peter Jukes, now Executive Editor of Byline Times, of blackmailing the source of the stash of emails. Jukes tweeted that this accusation was wholly untrue.
At one point, Millar asked Banks about a report in a newspaper that he might have leaked. He suggested that he thought that his old consigliere and head of public relations at Leave EU, Andy Wigmore, had leaked it.
Why hasn’t Wigmore given a witness statement (or indeed evidence), Millar persisted? “I don’t know,” said Banks. The strange silence of Andy Wigmore hung over the court for a moment or two, before the wheels of justice groaned onwards.
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When Carole Cadwalladr was cross-examined that afternoon by Banks’ QC, William McCormick, the strategy of the plaintiff’s lawyers became plain. The goal is to undermine Cadwalladr’s integrity. To begin with, McCormick did well, making Cadwalladr stumble at times. McCormick has a pleasing Northern Irish accent. But for reporters in the overflow room, where we watch proceedings over a CCTV monitor, there were times that people gasped at his brutal way with words.
After a while Cadwalladr got her composure back, setting out that pushing to get an interview via Twitter and looking things up on Google were common journalistic practices. It wasn’t exactly Botham at Headingly, but she was hitting the ball.
McCormick brought up reporting about Banks’ Russian-born wife, Ekaterina Paderina, who had had a relationship with an MP before she met Banks. The Daily Mail had reported in 2010 a spy scandal involving another Russian woman and the same MP. The QC said that the newspaper reports about Mrs Banks were “no evidence of anything… a little bit of salacious gossip, isn’t it?” Cadwalladr replied that she thought the story striking but went on to say that she respected people’s right to privacy. Though she had quizzed Banks about it at a face to face interview in 2017, and he had laughed that his wife had the “profile of a Russian spy”, she had only mentioned the incident once, two years later, in a larger piece covering Russian interactions with British political figures.
“I have never thought Mr Banks is a Russian spy or similar,” Cadwalladr told McCormick, “I thought he might have been used and exploited by the Russian Government.” She also said she never maintained that Banks accepted any money, directly or indirectly, from the Russian Government.
When quizzed about a ‘discrepancy’ between Andy Wigmore’s claim that he and Banks were suing the Atlantic Council for a report that Banks was pro-Russian, and her understanding that only the individual author of the report had actually received threats of legal action Cadwalladr claimed: “Mr Banks only takes legal action against those who find it difficult to defend themselves.”
The case – and defence of journalistic free speech in Britain – continues.