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Sensemaker: The free speech fightback

Sensemaker: The free speech fightback

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A chartered plane returned empty to Spain after a judge at the European Court of Human Rights said it couldn’t lawfully take asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda (more below).
  • Alexei Navalny’s lawyers said they didn’t know where he was, as Russian officials said he’d been transferred to an unnamed maximum security prison.
  • Citron launched a 28 mph electric quadricycle for UK commuters at a lease price of £19.99 a month.

The free speech fightback

Human rights are having a moment.

  • American schoolchildren could win new protections of their right to life as Congress moves to approve limited background checks for gun buyers under 21.
  • Asylum seekers have temporarily been spared deportation to Rwanda, partly on the basis of their right to a family life.
  • And a British judge has upheld the right of the journalist Carole Cadwalladr to speak her mind. 

When Cadwalladr heard on Monday that she’d won her battle against a libel claim brought by the Brexiteer millionaire Arron Banks, she said it would take a while to sink in. No wonder. 

For three years she faced the prospect of financial ruin if Banks’ claim was upheld, because he sued her personally rather than any of the papers or platforms where her work appeared.

His claim. Banks said Cadwalladr defamed him

  • a) in a 2019 Ted Talk in which, in the context of explaining the finances of the EU referendum’s Leave campaign, she said: “And I’m not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government”; and
  • b) in a later tweet telling her followers he was suing her for the talk and adding: “If you haven’t watched it, please do. I say he lied about his contact with the Russian government. Because he did.”

Her defence. Cadwalladr initially offered a “truth defence”, which the judge said meant she was not only accusing Banks of lying but of lying about illegal foreign funding of an electoral campaign. Cadwalladr later withdrew that defence, saying she hadn’t intended to make the funding allegation and wouldn’t do so again. She offered a public interest defence instead, based on the idea that her belief that the Ted Talk was in the public interest was reasonable. 

This is the argument Mrs Justice Steyn ultimately accepted. It matters because 

  • it upholds a journalist’s right to say what she believes is in the public interest as long as that belief is reasonable at the time; and
  • it’s a landmark application of a relatively new law that depends on individual judges (because there’s no longer an automatic right to a jury trial in UK libel cases), and the judge has found in favour of free speech against the potentially chilling effect of expensive litigation. 

The caveats. The judge said Banks’ complaint was “legitimate” and not a so-called SLAPP suit (a “strategic lawsuit against public participation”). Translation: she didn’t buy the argument that Banks’ main purpose was to intimidate Cadwalladr into silence.

He may appeal. Equally, he may think better of it in light of Russia’s pariah status and Steyn’s exhaustive judgement, which

  • makes clear that Cadwalladr did have multiple reasons to believe Banks lied to her about the extent of his relationship with Russia and with Russia’s ambassador to London in particular; and
  • notes in passing that years before their paths crossed Banks tweeted openly in support of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. 

Cadwalladr won’t have to pay costs of up to £1,000,000 for which she would have been liable had Banks won. Nor did the judge award him any damages even though she concluded the Ted Talk did serious harm to his reputation.

The talk is still online and well worth a listen.

tortoise quarterly

My life in a field

David Taylor

Zzziiiiip. Somewhere around four in the morning, the sound of a cheap two-person tent being opened, followed by a torch flashed in our faces and a mumbled Mancunian apology.

Straight back to addled sleep, feet facing downwards on a sloping field that had been made soft by a downpour the night before the festival got started.

Woken with the morning sun. Hot in here. What’s that very precise cut in the top of the tent, two torn sides of a triangle?

Soon enough we realised our accidental night-time visitor was not at all accidental.


Squeeze on Russians
The war is proving much less painful for Russia’s economy than anticipated when the first of six new waves of sanctions was introduced in February. Moscow is still earning roughly a billion euros a day in oil and gas revenues from Europe to fund the destruction of Ukraine. But life for ordinary Russians is not unchanged. According to government statistics reported by the Times, 21 million of them are now living in official poverty on less than $200 a month – the highest level in three years. One in ten can’t handle their debts and sales of new cars fell by 80 per cent last month. The World Bank says the Russian economy will shrink by 11 per cent this year. Ukraine’s, meanwhile, will shrink by nearly half.  


Patel’s “surprise”
The UK’s home secretary says she’s “very surprised” her first deportation flight to Rwanda for asylum seekers departed in the end for Spain with not a single refugee aboard. She says she was “disappointed”, too, that the European Court of Human Rights intervened even though two UK courts said the flight could go ahead. Priti Patel is being disingenuous. All it took was for an ECHR judge to find that one Iraqi on the plane faced a “real risk of irreversible harm” in Rwanda, and had no guarantee of being able to return to the UK if an appeal against his deportation succeeded, for fresh challenges to be filed in UK courts on behalf of the other half-dozen asylum seekers on the plane. And they were all taken off. This was easily foreseen and it sets the stage for precisely the sort of fight the government wants with the ECHR, even though its charter is to a large extent a British creation and it has nothing to do with the EU. Voters’ views on the Rwanda scheme divide on party lines. To opponents, it’s a stunt, rejected as such last night. That doesn’t mean Patel won’t keep pulling it. At £500,000 per cancelled flight it’s value-for-money politics.


Ukrainian data
The Ukrainian government is moving citizens’ sensitive personal data to specially-built servers in Poland, with plans for similar back-up schemes in Estonia and France. The fear is that in a worst-case scenario Russia could destroy data with rocket strikes on Ukrainian data centres, or use it to track Ukrainian civilians. The first databases moved abroad concern the economy and tax system, the WSJ reports, but data from all government departments will follow. If there are strange echoes of Soviet museum staff packing up the Hermitage to ship its treasures to Siberia, that’s because there’s a war on.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Stroke and addiction 
Addiction is often framed as a behavioural choice: it was your choice to have that first cigarette, it’s also up to you to stop smoking. Research is now moving towards accepting that addiction is a disease within the brain. But knowing that a problem in the brain can lead to addiction is one thing; knowing exactly where in the brain is trickier. A new study examining stroke and other brain injury patients who found their nicotine addictions disappeared after the event seems to have found an answer. Researchers say networks linking regions of the brain, which can be damaged after a stroke, could be stimulated by electrodes on the outside of the skull, or implanted, relieving cravings. To note: steaming ahead with hands-on neurological treatment shouldn’t be at the expense of social and behavioural factors that can also play a part in addiction. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Yellowstone deluge
Unprecedented flooding in Yellowstone national park has led 10,000 visitors to be evacuated, houses to be pulled into rivers and air rescue teams to be deployed. The park saw record levels of rainfall and snowmelt after a late and cool spring. One point on the Yellowstone River, which runs through the park, was recorded at 13.88 feet on Monday beating a historical high of 11.5 feet in 1918, according to NOAA data. No one has been injured or killed but the park’s infrastructure is significantly damaged. In footage from a park helicopter, the destruction to the entrance road at the north of the park is clearly visible. Water levels are now receding. The effects of climate change on weather patterns are not. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs James Veysey/Shutterstock, Getty Images

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