The tactic of issuing time-consuming legal proceedings but not serving them on the defendant is a familiar one for many journalists. Experts speak of the ‘chilling effect’. These are the stories that go unwritten, the leads left unpursued, while the fear of being put out of business hangs over you.
To Jeffrey Donaldson, it may well have been worth the time and money to threaten us with court action for so long. He was, after all, occupying centre stage in our long-running investigation into the DUP’s controversial £435,000 Brexit donation. The money had been funnelled through an obscure shell entity in Glasgow, chaired by a former Scottish Conservative parliamentary candidate with links to gun-runners and Saudi secret services.
Thanks to our journalism, voters in Northern Ireland now have a right to know who bankrolls their political candidates, just as voters in the rest of the UK do.
But when it comes to press freedom, Northern Ireland is still a place apart. Why? Because the DUP made it so. In 2012, then DUP Stormont minister Sammy Wilson – apparently with support from Northern Irish first minister Peter Robinson – took the single and unchecked decision to halt the extension of the reforms of English and Welsh defamation law to Northern Ireland.
As a result, it’s much easier to sue journalists in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK – although reporters still face legal threats across Britain. The acclaimed journalist Catherine Belton is currently facing a slew of lawsuits in English courts from Russian billionaires over her book on Vladimir Putin’s rise. At openDemocracy, we’ve received countless legal threats over the years.
And that’s why Jeffrey Donaldson matters. Real leaders speak up for press freedom, they don’t target small media organisations whose reporting they don’t like.
It’s easy to dismiss the DUP leadership contest as a sideshow. The party is far from the mainstream of British political opinion. The former leader Arlene Foster’s disastrous tenure ended after she refused to vote against a proposal to ban gay conversion therapy in Northern Ireland.
But the DUP has been a powerful force in British politics – as we saw after the 2017 election when the Democratic Unionists had the whip hand over Theresa May’s government. The party is still the biggest in Stormont.
Jeffrey Donaldson is pitching himself as the ‘moderate’ candidate in a race that will have a major bearing on politics in Northern Ireland, and beyond. So today, we are doing something that doesn’t always come naturally to journalists. We’re speaking up about how he tried to silence us.