Friday 21st January saw closing arguments in the trial of the long-running libel claim between Aaron Banks and Carole Cadwalladr. Leave.EU co-founder Banks is suing the award-winning freelance Observer and Guardian journalist over comments that she made in a 2019 Ted Talk – ‘Facebook’s Role in Brexit and the Threat to Democracy’ – and a related Tweet.

In 2019, Mr Justice Saini held that the statements would have been understood to mean that ‘On more than one occasion Mr Banks told untruths about a secret relationship he had with the Russian government in relation to acceptance of foreign funding of electoral campaigns in breach of the law on such funding. ’ Banks claims that this is seriously defamatory of him, which Cadwalladr denies.

Cadwalladr, who is supported by 19 press-freedom groups including Reporters without Borders, defends the claim on the basis that the remarks were made in the public interest. She previously also relied on defences of truth and limitation, but these were withdrawn after the judgment of Mr Justice Saini.

To make good this defence, under s.4 of the Defamation Act 2013, she will have to show that the reporting concerned a matter of public interest, and that she reasonably believed that her statements were in the public interest. This latter requirement focuses upon her conduct as a journalist.

Banks denies that Cadwalladr had the requisite reasonable belief. In her witness statement, she said: ‘It did not at any time occur to me to send a right-of-reply to [Banks] in the context of the Ted talk. I was reporting nothing new. I had said every fact in my talk many times before.’

In his closing speech before the High Court on Friday (21stJanuary), Claimant counsel William McCormick QC claimed that Banks’ reputation has been damaged in the eyes of others as a result of Cadwalladr’s statements and addressed allegations by Cadwalladr and her allies that the claim is a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) case, submitting that ‘this suit was always brought in good faith for a proper purpose’. Banks had previously told the court ‘I was not sure how else I was expected to correct the record and I certainly cannot do so if she insists on being able to repeat false claims.’

Gavin Millar QC for Cadwalladr summarised the defence case and told the Court that Banks failed to make good his claim, including that he suffered serious harm: ‘we say the claimant has not climbed up that hill needed to get his claim off the ground’. He said that Banks had already sustained reputational damage elsewhere, and that Cadwalladr was only repeating information in the public domain.

Cadwalladr, who could face a costs order of over £1m and is fundraising to finance her defence, is understood to be risking bankruptcy if she loses.

The Judge has concluded that the judgment will be reserved whilst consideration is made on the verdict.