“If ‘might’ is allowed to triumph over ‘right’, then ultimately we will all pay the price.” I wrote these words earlier this year, celebrating the importance of internationalism and standing with our global allies, but given the rampant legal bullying that is infringing on free speech in the UK, my words also have relevance closer to home.
Slapps, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, are legal threats and actions aimed at journalists, community campaigners, academics or anyone challenging power. They’re used to shut down public participation and silence those who speak out in the public interest.
In the 22 years I have been an MP, the UK has cemented its central position in the world of Slapps by allowing wealthy and powerful people seeking to avoid scrutiny to have articles pulled, comments deleted and public interest investigations halted. For too long, legal and financial might has triumphed over the right.
The journalist Catherine Belton and her publisher, HarperCollins, were subject to several legal cases brought by four oligarchs and Rosneft, a Russian state oil and gas company, in connection to the book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West. Roman Abramovich also brought a suit in Australia. It had been estimated that if the libel trial had gone ahead in the UK and Australia the legal bill would likely have exceeded £5m.
In another instance, abuse survivor Nina Cresswell named the person who “violently sexually assaulted her” after her original report was dismissed by police. She wanted “to alert women who could otherwise become victims of sexual assault” but he sued her for defamation. She won a landmark judgment earlier this year but the fact that she had to fight the case at all demonstrates the gaps in British law that Slapp claimants are only too happy to exploit.
Many others have received legal letters demanding retractions, apologies and money simply for having the temerity to publish negative reviews, postcomments on social media platforms or publish blog posts. By “temerity”, I mean the right to free expression, which everyone in the UK is entitled to exercise. For too long, we have failed to deal with the system that enables bullies.
This is why I am bringing forward a private members’ bill to stamp out all Slapps. It will allow courts to throw out Slapps at an early stage before they can do any more damage, and reduce costs for those forced into the position of defending themselves, while increasing the costs and risks for the claimants.
British courts must not be abused by the wealthy and powerful. Slapps are used to intimidate their targets into silence by leveraging the time, costs and stress associated with defending the case until the target relents. A legitimate public interest debate is driven into the shadows by opaque and dense legalese.
Legal letters are often labelled as “private and confidential”, which can further isolate targets as they are unsure whether they can speak about the legal threat.
I am not standing for parliament again, but I hope that this private members’ bill will become law and I can leave the House of Commons knowing that free expression is protected, and not just for those who can afford it. We are entitled to free speech, not expensive speech. Only then will right triumph over might.