‘Libel Tourism?’ American Journalist Sued in the UK, for Covering Russian Interference in the US
Despite only having 6 British subscribers, the founder of Forensic News faces legal action in the English courts for his coverage of Russian interference in the 2016 election
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“There are times when I have to be at a meeting at 10 am London time for my lawyers and so I’m up in the middle of the night. My sleep schedule is a little bit different now,” Scott Stedman tells Byline Times, speaking over Zoom at 6 pm local time, 10 am in California where he lives. “I’ve never been to the UK, so it’s all completely foreign to me.”
Stedman, a US-based investigative journalist and founder of Forensic News, is being sued in the UK by British businessman Walter Soriano, based on a series of articles and a podcast published in 2019 and 2020. These articles were released after allegations that Soriano was being investigated by the Senate in relation to foreign interference in the 2016 election.
The six articles and a podcast, published on Forensic News, investigated Soriano’s alleged connection to billionaires and senior government officials, including Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The lawsuit was filed in July 2020 against Stedman, Forensic News, and three of his colleagues, two of whom have since made settlements with Soriano.
The original claims brought against Stedman were libel, malicious falsehood, harassment, and breach of GDPR and privacy laws. These were opposed by Stedman on jurisdiction grounds given that, as he mentions more than once, he has no connection to the UK, and has never been there. This resulted in more than half of the claims being thrown out. As it stands, the lawsuit contains allegations of libel, part of the original privacy claim, and a breach of GDPR.
The technicalities allowing Stedman to be sued in the UK vary from claim to claim; for libel, it is on the grounds that Soriano’s main residence is in the UK, and that 5-10% of Forensic News’ readership is in the UK. The deciding factor for the GDPR claim was that Forensic News had six subscribers paying monthly in pounds or euros, which was enough for, Stedman explains, a “stable arrangement,” the test for GDPR.
The Burden of Proof
Fifteen press freedom organisations have condemned the lawsuit, deeming it a SLAPP case (strategic lawsuit against public participation). These are lawsuits brought about by powerful, wealthy individuals in order to silence and intimidate journalists. As Sian Norris and I wrote recently in these pages, following an annual anti-SLAPP conference in London, the English courts are known as the “SLAPP tourism capital of the world” due to their claimant-friendly libel laws.
Lawyers representing Walter Soriano denied his case is an “abuse of process” and “hence not a SLAPP”. They point out that “five senior judges of the English High Court and the Court of Appeal decided, in two separate judgments, that claims brought by Mr Soriano are clearly not libel tourism” and that he was the first claimant to satisfy “the very high barriers under English law” so that he could bring his claims against a foreign organisation since the 2013 Defamation Acts.
“The one thing that people don’t necessarily appreciate is that the burden is on me for libel,” Stedman explains. “If he were to sue me in the US, the burden is on him to prove that I’ve defamed him. He has to prove that he’s been affected by this, that there’s been a material outcome, like a bank won’t lend to him or something like that because of what I’ve written, or that his reputation’s been totally destroyed. In the US, you can’t just launch a proceeding without some kind of proof that you’ve been affected, but in the UK it’s completely backwards.”
The amount of time required to build his defence has a serious impact on Stedman’s work. He would like to be writing two articles a month but is only able to publish one every two months. Despite speaking highly of his lawyers and various press freedom organisations, Stedman is backed by little to no institutional support, largely because his organisation is small and lacks the resources of a bigger paper. Stedman and Forensic News say they have no choice but to crowdfund their legal fees.
Stedman is not alone in lawsuits brought about by Soriano; he points out that “if you look at who he’s suing and who he has sued, it’s always the smaller, independent outlets that he’s sued, including mine, and then Le Point in France, and he’s sued a blogger in Seattle. He’s always picking on the smaller publications.”
Soriano’s lawyers deny he is picking on smaller publications and point out that “the most serious news organisations have not repeated Mr Stedman’s baseless accusations”.
The Personal Toll
My mental health is nearing an all-time low,” Stedman explains. “I deal with panic attacks and anxiety as it is, that was in my life before all of this, and this hasn’t done any good for that. My panic attacks are a little bit more frequent now.”
One of the major hallmarks of a SLAPP is intimidation. Speaking at the anti-SLAPP conference, Stedman recounted how he had arrived home after an afternoon with friends to find a car outside his house. The owner of the car followed him to his door and presented him with a stack of legal documents, saying only “this is from Mr Soriano”.
Lawyers for Soriano point out that personally serving documents is not improper and sometimes necessary. They also emphasise that Soriano has capped his damages claim at $66,000 and that Stedman has failed to respond to a court order to pay $110,000 on account since he lost his appeal. They also say that if the suit was a SLAPP, Stedman would be able to apply to have it struck out, which he has not done.
“Although I do feel pretty safe in California… [The case] kind of permeates throughout my life, it’s not just my work life, it’s everything,” Stedman told Byline Times. Despite the mental toll, however, says he is “still upbeat.” Taking a positive spin on the case, he believes that, if nothing else, he is fighting for a just cause. “I don’t feel like this is a noble thing that I’m doing, but I think that there are some aspects of that where I’m a journalist standing up for press freedoms, and actually fighting back.”
The meaning hearing, which determines the legal meaning of the words Stedman is being sued for, takes place in London in March 2023. Stedman will be attending in person, marking his first-ever visit to the UK. The trial is expected to be held in late 2023 or early 2024.