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Government launches taskforce to stop ‘devastating’ lawsuits against journalists

The Government has launched a new taskforce which aims to put a stop to lawsuits that have a “devastating” impact on journalists.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer will meet groups from the media and legal sectors on Monday as they try to end legal threats, known as strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps).

This action is often used by wealthy individuals and firms to try to stop journalists or campaigners from exposing wrongdoing under defamation and privacy laws.

New Year Honours list 2023
Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s People: How The KGB Took Back Russia And Then Took On The West (Catherine Belton/PA)

Ms Frazer said: “When I became culture secretary I vowed to stand up for independent voices and nurture a thriving media landscape which upholds and champions fearless truth telling.

“Slapps have led to journalists having to crowdfund their legal fees and some have even been forced to sell their homes – simply for doing their job.

“Working together with industry leaders, we will develop strong measures which enhance the freedom of the press to expose wrongdoing without fear of our justice system being abused to silence journalists.”

Russian oligarchs have previously used Slapps to silence critics in recent years.

A defamation case by HarperCollins and author Catherine Belton was settled with Roman Abramovich, after her book Putin’s People: How The KGB Took Back Russia And Then Took On The West included claims he purchased Chelsea football club in 2003 at the Russian president’s command.

Ms Belton became an MBE for services to journalism in the New Year Honours list and previously urged the Government to introduce a law to tackle Slapps.

UK bureau director for Reporters Without Borders, Fiona O’Brien, said: “Slapps can have a devastating impact on the journalists involved and their ability to report freely on matters of public interest, so we’re very pleased to see the establishment of a taskforce that recognises them as a serious and pressing threat.

“This is a welcome step towards ensuring UK journalists are better protected from such abusive and damaging lawsuits.”

Her organisation is joined in the taskforce by groups such as the Society of Editors, the National Union of Journalists and the Law Society of England and Wales.

Earlier this year, the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill was amended to clamp down on Slapps that are related to economic crime, which the Government says are the vast majority of such cases brought to UK courts.

The Bill, which has completed its third reading in the House of Lords, is about establishing an early dismissal mechanism to make it easier for courts in England and Wales to quickly dismiss Slapps related to economic crime, according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

“The Government has also committed to legislating to tackle Slapps outside of economic crime as soon as parliamentary time allows,” the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said.

The new taskforce is set to commission research to investigate the prevalence of Slapps used against journalists and explore how legal services regulation could be used to prevent or mitigate the legal issue.

Alongside this, the body will draw up plans for new specialist training for judges and law professionals to help them easily identify and throw out Slapps and develop guidance to support journalists, publications or law professionals

A report, published in April, by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that 47.6% of worldwide respondents said that they or their media organisation were facing legal threats and since 2015 it concluded that Slapp cases have “increased substantially”.

The taskforce, to focus on non-legislative measures, will report on its findings in its 12-month term, DCMS said.