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16.03.17

Court orders Katie Hopkins to pay £24,000 in damages in Twitter libel case

The food blogger, journalist and left-wing political activist Jack Monroe has been awarded £24,000 in damages by the High Court following two tweets sent by the MailOnline (and former Sun) columnist Katie Hopkins in May 2015.

Factual background

On 9 May 2015, two days after the General Election, the words “Fuck Tory Scum” were spray painted on to the Memorial to the Women of WWII in Whitehall.  Later that day the New Statesman journalist Laurie Penny tweeted a photograph of the vandalised memorial alongside the comment: “I don’t have a problem with this.”  Approximately an hour and a half later the Defendant tweeted a link to Ms Penny’s tweet with the comment: “@PennyRed [Ms Penny] thinks this is OK. Burn her passport, bulk buy her lube & make her a woman of ISIS.”

The Twitter clash between Ms Penny and Ms Hopkins was subsequently reported by a number of news organisations.  Some eight days later, on 18 May 2015, in a case of mistaken identity, Ms Hopkins posted the first tweet complained of (“The First Tweet”) which was as follows:-

“@MsJackMonroe [the Claimant] scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals?”

The Claimant responded almost immediately to deny that she had ever ‘scrawled on a memorial’ and highlighted her family military connections.  Soon afterwards she tweeted the Defendant stating: “Dear @KTHopkins [the Defendant], public apology +£5k to migrant rescue & I won’t sue.  It’ll be cheaper for you and v. satisfying for me.” 

The First Tweet was then deleted by the Defendant, who immediately afterwards tweeted the second tweet complained of (“The Second Tweet”):

“Can someone explain to me – in 10 words or less – the difference between irritant @PennyRed [Ms Penny] and social anthrax @JackMonroe [the Claimant].

On 21 May 2017 the Claimant’s solicitors sent a Letter of Claim to the Defendant.  The Defendant did not respond, but did send a tweet on 2 June 2015 stating: “@MsJackMonroe [the Claimant] I was confused about identity.  I got it wrong.”  Nevertheless, proceedings were issued in December 2015.

The Judgment

The first consideration for Warby J in his judgment of Monroe v Hopkins [2017] EWHC 433 (QB) was the meaning of the tweets.  The Judge took into account the “conversational” nature of Twitter and the context in which the tweets were sent.  He concluded that the First Tweet would be understood to have an element of metaphor and would be understood to mean that the Claimant “condoned and approved of scrawling on war memorials, vandalising monuments commemorating those who fought for her freedom.”

The Judge considered the Second Tweet in the context of certain ‘innuendo facts’ (namely the Defendant’s earlier Twitter argument with Ms Penny), and found it to mean that the Claimant “condoned and approved of the fact that in the course of an anti-government protest there had been vandalisation by obscene graffiti of the women’s war memorial in Whitehall, a monument to those who fought for her freedom,” in other words the same innuendo meaning as the First Tweet.  The Judge went on to conclude that both of these meanings had a defamatory tendency and that right-thinking members of society would strongly disapprove of anyone who approved or condoned vandalising a war memorial.

The Judge then considered the extent of publication.  This was a particular issue in this case as the First Tweet was an ‘at reply’ tweet, meaning that it only went to the Twitter timelines of those who followed both Ms Hopkins and Ms Monroe (around 140 people), however it would have been seen by more individuals given that it was displayed on Ms Hopkins’ home page for approximately 2 hours and 25 minutes, and will have also been ‘retweeted’ to the followers of other Twitter users. Because the First Tweet was deleted by Ms Hopkins the Court was unable to ascertain the exact number of readers but the Judge concluded it would have been around 20,000.  The number of readers of the Second Tweet would have been even higher.

The final issue for the Judge to consider was whether the Claimant had suffered, or is likely to suffer, serious harm as a result of the publication complained of.  He directed himself that unless serious harm to reputation can be established then an injury to feelings along, however grave, will not be sufficient (Sobrinho v Impresa Publishing SA [2016] EWHC 66 QB, analysed on the Brett Wilson Media Blog here).  In these circumstances the Judge held that this test had been satisfied and the Claimant had suffered serious harm to her reputation.  He rejected the argument that Twitter is the ‘Wild West’ of social media and found that the Claimant had suffered abuse as a result of the tweets which had a “substantial” impact on her.

Damages

The Court accepted that the damages should not be at the top end of the scale in libel claims.  The Judge commented that “the extent of publication was significant but not massive in its scale. The harm to reputation, though serious, will not have been grave.”  Taking into account all of the circumstances, the Judge awarded the Claimant a total of £16,000 for the First Tweet and £8,000 for the Second Tweet.

Comment

This case is particularly notable given the relatively high damages that were awarded in favour of the Claimant and provides useful guidance as to the application of the ‘serious harm’ test to cases involving Twitter (and other forms of social media).  It is interesting that the Court held that the serious harm test had been satisfied on the general basis that “the tweets complained of have a tendency to cause harm to this claimant’s reputation in the eyes of third parties, of a kind that would be serious to her.”  This is likely to encourage claimants in circumstances where the allegations themselves are serious but the tangible evidence of serious harm to reputation is somewhat limited and/or whether it is serious is subjective.  Finally, the case is a reminder to parties about how their behaviour can be taken into account by the Court.  There can be little doubt that the Defendant’s decision to not apologise and to not provide a witness statement in the proceedings that might have explained her reasoning and thought process at the time of the publication counted against her.  Indeed the Judge commented regretfully that no offer of amends was made under the Defamation Act 1996.

Update

On 15 March 2017 in an interview on BBC Radio 4's The Media Show, the Defendant indicated that she was considering appealing the judgment and criticised the interpretation of "serious harm" and the application of defamation law to social media claims.

Click here to find out how Brett Wilson LLP defamation solicitors can assist you if you have been libelled on Twitter


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Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.


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