Monday 20 May 2024 - Thought Leadership

Insurers are critical to protecting investigative journalism

By Ros Breese

Strategic lawsuits against public participation are the latest threat to investigative journalism.

Earlier this year, the UK government announced that it was backing a bill to end intimidatory lawsuits intended to silence journalists. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) have become the latest weapon deployed to prevent investigative journalism. While there remain a number of stages for the bill before it becomes law, it is nonetheless timely. Until it does, insurers will continue to provide a vital financial defence for the media against the latest attempt to reduce press freedom.

Investigative journalism has a long and storied history of holding power to account, uncovering and exposing corruption and providing a voice for whistleblowers and those seeking to report abuse of position and privilege. From Woodward and Bernstein breaking the Watergate scandal to Harold Evans at The Sunday Times revealing how the drug Thalidomide, initially marketed as a mild sleeping pill safe for pregnant women, led to thousands of babies being born with phocomelia. These seminal stories had profound and positive consequences.

Investigative journalism can also reshape power dynamics. The reporting of Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey and Ronan Farrow in 2017, which detailed allegations of sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein, was key in kickstarting the MeToo movement. The revelations acted as a catalyst, encouraging more women to come forward about their experiences with powerful figures across the creative industry.      

The impact of investigations into sexual misconduct were to be felt across all workplaces and spur on reporters across the world. This included the exposé of The Presidents Club Charity Dinner in 2018 by Financial Times journalist Madison Marriage. Her reporting revealed the harassment faced by hostesses at a men-only event held at The Dorchester Hotel in London. The intense public outcry led to the disbandment of the charity and associated events. 


Media Mic

Retaliation to Investigative Journalism

Efforts to prevent this type of scrutiny are not new. However, SLAPPs have been some of the most financially burdensome. SLAPPs are lawsuits, typically brought by high-net-worth individuals aiming to harass, intimidate and financially or psychologically exhaust those investigating public interest stories. Journalists, authors or publishing houses could be on the brink of revealing critical information to the public but be ‘slapped’ with a cease and desist. They are often presented as libel claims, bankrolled by a wealthy oligarch or company seeking to avoid public scrutiny. The tool attempts to stop the investigation through the threat of insurmountable legal costs.

In 2020, the thinktank Foreign Policy Centre found that over half of investigative journalists working globally on stories related to corruption have faced civil legal cases, cease and desist letters, surveillance, interrogation by authorities or smear campaigns. Staggeringly, a majority of those who received threats were working on stories connected to the UK’s financial and legal jurisdictions. What’s more, the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe found that the total number of these cases continues to grow every year in the UK.

In 2021, 14 SLAPPs were recorded in the UK. One involved two journalists who faced high-profile defamation claims for their books investigating Russian individuals and organisations—the legal actions targeted not only the books' publishers but also the journalists in their individual capacities. The oligarchs initiated actions that resulted in one of the journalists settling the claims against her, incurring legal costs of £1.5 million.

Protections against these legal actions are limited as recent regulatory changes aimed at addressing this issue have done little to prevent misuse of legal proceedings. The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 and this year’s Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill – whilst a significant step forward – leave a concerning number of grey areas, particularly in the limited way the legislation defines ‘public interest’.  

In addition to the significant financial cost, SLAPPs are often accompanied by negative psychological impacts on journalists and publishers. Both the fear of incurring prohibitive legal fees and the threat of becoming embroiled in stressful court battles can deter journalists from pursuing stories that are in the public interest.

Insurers role in protecting journalists against SLAPPs

For responsible and sophisticated journalists who conduct robust fact-checking and ensure legal processes have been followed rigorously, understanding who is on their side and the support available can help minimise the financial and emotional burden of SLAPPs. Investigative Journalism represents the best of the media. Reporters who seek to use their pens to address injustice, shine a light on corruption and change our societies for the better must be able to continue their work without the threat of financial ruin. SLAPPs threaten this ability.

As an industry, insurance can make a genuine difference, providing the safety net that journalists need to continue to uncover abuse of power while being assured that they are protected against the legal risks inherent in their trade.

You can also read the article in Insurance Day.

Contact details

Ros Breese
Ros Breese

Media, Film & TV Underwriting Manager