News 18th Nov 2022

The role of media in exposing corruption: are we losing the battle?

Daniel Bruce

Chief Executive

Daniel Bruce is Chief Executive of Transparency International UK. He leads the overall strategy of Transparency International UK across all programme and policy areas. He heads up the leadership team and serves as the organisation’s senior-most representative to governments, the private sector and in the media.

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Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of a letter threatening libel action, especially when the claimant is a billionaire oligarch, but that’s exactly what happened to one of the speakers at our annual event.

In a fascinating discussion, author and journalist Catherine Belton described her shock at receiving not just one of these letters, but a legal “pile on” from other oligarchs and the Russian state oil company Rosneft, all of which featured in her book Putin’s People which explores the rise of the Russian president.

She described feeling terrified after receiving the initial legal warning – marked private and confidential - and felt she couldn’t respond even to friendly offers of legal assistance for fear of being later accused of breaching confidentiality. 

Of course, this is precisely the intended effect and is typically just the opening salvo in Strategic Litigation against Public Participation (SLAPP), a practice which has been increasingly weaponised against those who dare to expose corruption.



SLAPP suits often have little chance of succeeding should they make it to trial but winning in court is not the objective. Instead, wealthy individuals employ specialist lawyers to send letters threatening libel action against journalists and civil society who publish legitimate, public interest reporting about them. These legal threats and demands for huge damages are often enough to block publication, but if they’re not, the next stage is to further turn the screw by dragging out pre-trial proceedings for as long as possible.

The work of investigative journalists is critical in exposing crime and corruption. The Panama, Paradise and Pandora Papers – three major leaks of company data – are perhaps some of the best-known examples of how a global consortium of journalists helped expose the financial affairs of the world’s rich and powerful. Exposing corruption is of course fundamental to our work too. Just this year a joint investigation with our partner Transparency International chapters in Russia and the Czech Republic uncovered an industrial-scale money laundering scheme that moved $820 million in suspect funds out of the Russian Federation.

Being able to defend your reputation by challenging defamatory claims is of course an important feature of democratic societies, so if journalists and civil society are sure what they plan to publish is true, why not just prove that in court? The answer is simple: cost.

We at Transparency International UK have faced the threat of lawsuits by those who didn’t like the evidence-based revelations in some of our reports, so we are unfortunately no strangers to this kind of intimidation. But particularly striking was Catherine’s description of the legal fees incurred by her publishers: £1.5 million just to get to the preliminary hearing and at least a further £2.5 million to defend it in court. These sorts of figures would pose an existential threat for smaller organisations and a major issue even for much bigger CSOs and news organisations.

Caroline Kean, who represented Catherine, explained why English libel law made the courts here particularly attractive for those launching SLAPPs. She set out how “the costs and the burden of proof are loaded against investigative journalism”, with the onus on the defendant to prove their comments are true, combined with the fact the claimant does not have to show they suffered any harm until the case reaches trial – which can take years.

Susan Coughtrie, Deputy Director at the Foreign Policy Centre, shared concerning details of a recent survey by her organisation that found that 63 journalists working on financial crime and corruption in 41 countries identified the UK as the leading international jurisdiction for legal threats. More than 60 per cent of those respondents were working on corruption investigations with a direct or indirect link to the UK. She also told the audience that, given the UK’s well-established role as a global hub for dirty money, there are concerns that the proceeds of corruption may well be used to pay legal fees to launch these SLAPP suits. 



I’ve painted quite a bleak picture, but there is hope on the horizon.

The Government is not unaware of what’s happening. In July, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab committed to introducing an anti-SLAPP law at the “earliest opportunity”. It’s promising to see the Government’s proposals include measures that would address some of the key issues, but it is critical that they are turned into law. The Government should demonstrate its commitment to ending SLAPP suits by including this legislation in the next King’s Speech. 

Of course, some of the required changes must come from the legal profession itself. As Caroline put it, there needs to be strong disapproval of lawyers that take on cases they know to be meritless, and those that do need to ask themselves whether they are “professionals or just guns for hire”.

Meanwhile, the Solicitors Regulation Authority is issuing new guidance to law firms on what sort of language they should – and shouldn’t – use in letters threatening libel action. Susan explained how this will also introduce a framework for those seeking to complain to the regulator when they are on the receiving end of SLAPP suits.

It’s tragic that it has taken Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine to highlight kleptocrats’ abuse of our economy, but the spotlight is now firmly on Britain’s role as a global hub for dirty money and the weaponisation of English courts. It’s vital that we keep up the pressure and end criminals and the corrupt from around the world from using their ill-gotten gains to abuse our legal system, muzzle freedom of speech and the right to information.