Legal letters threatening defamation action against press investigating the business or personal affairs of prominent political and businesses figures are nothing new. While they can, in some situations, be completely justified, recent actions from some powerful individuals in UK society have demonstrated how such threats can be used as a means of shutting down legitimate reporting into matters of public interest.

Michelle Mone used this very tactic in an attempt to stop an ongoing press investigation into her links to PPE Medpro, a company which racked up around £60 million profits supplying protective wear to the NHS during the Covid pandemic. After reports in a UK daily newspaper outlined evidence that Mone and her husband, Doug Barrowman, were connected to the company, the former Conservative Peer instructed several lawyers to issue letters warning journalists of the legal consequences if they continued to report "inaccurate", "misleading" and "defamatory" allegations about their client.

One such letter stated she had "no involvement in the business" and was followed up with another saying the journalist’s investigation was based on "entirely malevolent" motives.

Recently, however, Baroness Mone admitted that she was indeed connected to PPE Medpro and stood to benefit from its £200m of contracts. This admission also put her legal advisors in the spotlight with one quickly issuing an apology for his role in misleading the media.

A year earlier, former Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi instructed his lawyers to threaten court proceedings against another UK journalist for reporting that his tax affairs were being investigated by HMRC. The letter accused the journalist of defamation regarding Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs, which it stated were "fully declared and paid in the UK". When it later emerged that Mr Zahawi had been under investigation for the previous year, he was sacked from the Cabinet, forced to apologise and had to pay a £1m settlement to HMRC. The journalist in question has subsequently made a formal complaint to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority regarding the behaviour of Mr Zahawi’s lawyers.

While the misleading statements made by both Baroness Mone’s and Mr Zahawi’s lawyers in their defamation threat letters carried no legal consequences, they resulted in serious reputational consequences. Each of the lawyers who wrote on behalf of their respective high-profile clients has found themselves named in the press, and questioned about their actions. This has opened a wider debate on the ethics of acting on client’s instructions without first carrying out proper due diligence on the veracity of their claims. While most defamation lawyers have had clients instruct them to send a "shot across the bows"-style warning to deter a press investigation, the Mone and Zahawi scenarios demonstrate how following such an instruction without testing the allegations carries considerable risk.

The threat of defamation proceedings should only be used as a justifiable legal protection and not as a means of thwarting legitimate press investigations. It’s important for all lawyers to uphold this ethos in retaining public confidence in the legal profession which will help ensure that, where it’s warranted, the rich and powerful in society can be held to account.

Kirsteen MacDonald is founder and director of Mac Media Law