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Home // Banks Cadwalladr v Defamation Case: A Public Interest Defence

The Banks v Cadwalladr case was well-covered in the media, involving as it did a renowned investigative journalist (Carole Cadwalladr) and a central Brexit supporting figure (Aaron Banks).

The 2022 verdict found Cadwalladr had a public interest defence. And she had this defence even though some of her comments were judged to be defamatory and to have caused Mr. Banks serious harm. While the case was finely balanced it demonstrates the usefulness of the public interest defence when it can be established by individuals such as journalists who are sued for defamation. Broadly speaking the defence is available if:

  • The statement complained of was, or formed part of, a statement on a matter of public interest; and
  • The defendant reasonably believed that publishing the statement complained of was in the public interest.

Here we look at the case and explain how it sheds light in the way the public interest defence to defamation claims works in practice.

If you have concerns about defending a libel action, feel free to reach out to our director Shubha Nath directly on contact 44 (0) 203 983 8278. You can also   At Nath Solicitors in London, we run a well-respected defamation practice and advise individuals, including many high-profile public figures, on defamation and related matters.


Carole Cadwalladr is a well-known journalist, writing in the Observer chiefly. On 15 April 2019 she gave a speech covering the role Facebook had played in Brexit and analysing what she perceived as a threat to democracy.

In the course of her speech, she criticized Aaron Banks saying his group – Leave.EU – ‘broke British electoral laws and British data laws’.

Referring to Mr. Banks directly she continued: 

‘And I’m not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government.’

Mr. Banks then sued Ms. Cadwalladr for these comments and a subsequent tweet which contained the words:

‘I say he lied about his contact with the Russian govt. Because he did.’

Ms. Cadwalladr initially defended herself by arguing that the words in her speech and subsequent tweet were ‘substantially true’.  After an initial ruling on what the words complained of actually meant however she withdrew that defence. What we are interested in here is the public interest defence she advanced at trial.


Before tackling to Ms. Cadwalladr’s public interest defence  Mr. Banks had to show that the words he was complaining about had caused him serious harm. The court found that the words contained in Ms. Cadwalladr’s speech contained imputations of ‘serious, repeated dishonesty on the part of Mr. Banks about serious matters, namely a secret relationship he had with a potentially hostile foreign power for the unlawful and improper purpose of accepting foreign funding of an electoral campaign.’

This amounted to serious harm.

The follow-up tweet on the other hand had not caused serious harm. This was for a number of reasons, including the fact that the vast majority of the defendant’s followers on Twitter were ‘likely to be persons within her (Ms. Cadwalladr’s) own echo chamber’ and were likely to consist of people whose opinion of Mr. Banks was of no consequence to him.

So if the speech had caused serious harm, did Cadwalladr have enough evidence to meet the public interest defence?


The judgment in the case is interesting because in deciding whether there was a public interest defence the court considered the wider context of the comments made by Ms. Cadawalladr in her speech. The subject matter of her talk – how targeted advertising on social media challenges could undermine democracy – was of ‘real and abiding public interest at the time of publication’.

Cadwalladr in the court’s view satisfied the three elements of the public interest defence:

  • Her speech was in the public interest;
  • She believed that publishing the statement was in the public interest; and
  • It was reasonable for her to have held that belief.

Reasonableness in this context was ascribed to Cadwalladrs’ actions in large part because of the extensive documentary evidence she produced of her investigations into the subject matter of her speech over many years.


The judgment elicited polarizing views. Some believe it is a resounding victory for journalistic endeavour and free speech. Others believe it does not go far and that Steyn J could very easily reached a different conclusion.

However, it does highlight how libel cases like this can turn in very narrow issues and shows the need for expert legal guidance before going down the road to court.


For advice on any of the issues we have raised please contact Shubha Nath at Nath Solicitors on 44 (0) 203 983 8278 or get in touch with the firm online.


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