Reputation Update: Steele dossier – ex-spy not liable for BuzzFeed piece on Russian hacking

Posted: December 16, 2020

In the second case concerning a BuzzFeed article on the so-called “Steele dossier”, the High Court has found the defendants not liable for BuzzFeed’s publication of prima facie defamatory comments about the claimants [Gubarev & Webzilla Ltd v Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd & Christopher Steele [2020] EWHC 2912 (QB)]. This is despite the Judge, Mr Justice Warby, indicating that the claimant would have been entitled to substantial damages if he had proved that the defendants were responsible in law for the publication complained of.

As it happened, neither defendant had briefed the media on the contents of the memo concerned, which had been prepared by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 officer, which contained allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.  Nor had either defendant authorised anyone else to do so.  It only came into BuzzFeed’s possession because of the “wrongful conduct” of the journalist, who secretly photographed it when meeting a third party who had been provided with a copy under obligations of confidence.

Comment

The court recognised that undisputed serious harm had been caused to the reputation of the claimant by the publication of the memo by BuzzFeed.

For a second time, though, Warby J declined to find that Orbis was responsible for publication of the memo by BuzzFeed, the first being the Aven case [Aven & Ors v Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd [2020] EWHC 1812 (QB)].  Although that was a data protection claim, and Warby J observed in this judgment that it had “no legal relevance” to the present claim, there were evidential overlaps between the two.

The case is of interest for its consideration of the question of serious financial loss under the Defamation Act 2013.  Although Warby J acknowledged that it would be “naïve and unreal” to suppose that the allegations in question had no impact on Webzilla (the second claimant), in this case the company failed to provide evidence to that effect.  Corporate claimants should therefore always keep in mind the question of serious financial loss, or the likelihood thereof, and provide appropriate evidence of the same wherever possible, should it not be self-evident…

It was also noteworthy that it was common ground between the parties that BuzzFeed’s publication of the memo was “one of the most irresponsible and reckless actions in the history of modern journalism, representing a profound departure from the most basic journalistic ethics and standards expected of a mainstream media organisation”. 

While BuzzFeed would no doubt disagree with this assessment, they were not party to these proceedings.  Although BuzzFeed obtained summary judgment in Florida in 2018 on First Amendment grounds, the US proceedings are still active at the time of writing, as the case was remitted for a re‑hearing by the US Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit.  Therefore, the ultimate judgment, in terms of the law, about whether BuzzFeed’s publication was “irresponsible and reckless” or a justified expression of free speech remains to be decided.

Thomas Moore, Associate, Simkins LLP

A longer version of this article was written for Entertainment Law Review.