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Twitter defamation: Columnist ordered to pay £24,000 for defamatory tweets.

Two tweets posted by columnist Katie Hopkins have been found by the High Court to be defamatory of writer and food blogger Jack Monroe, who has been awarded £24,000 in damages. Hopkins has also been ordered to pay Monroe’s legal costs, estimated at more than £300,000. The case was one of the first “Twitter defamation cases” and shows that successful defamation claims can be brought if defamatory statements are posted on this social media platform.

Background

After the general election in 2015, the Memorial to the Women of World War II in Whitehall was vandalised, leading New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny to post tweets appearing to sympathise with this action. Instead of tweeting Laurie Penny, Katie Hopkins tweeted Jack Monroe on 18 June 2015: "@MsJackMonroe scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom"

Jack Monroe, whose brother currently serves in the Royal Air Force and whose father served in the Falkland Islands, responded stating: “I have NEVER ‘scrawled on a memorial’. Brother in the RAF. Dad was a Para in the Falklands. You’re a piece of s**t.” Jack Monroe then sent two further tweets, firstly: “I’m asking you nicely to please delete this lie Katie, and if I have to ask again it will be through my lawyer”, and then: “Dear @KTHopkins, public apology +£5k to migrant rescue & I won’t sue. It’ll be cheaper for you and v. satisfying for me.” Katie Hopkins refused to apologise and then tweeted: "Can someone explain to me - in 10 words or less - the difference between irritant @PennyRed and social anthrax @Jack Monroe".

Outcome

During the hearing in March 2017, the court was told that Hopkins had mistaken Monroe for Penny, as both are outspoken critics of the Conservative party’s austerity measures. The court held that the meaning of Hopkins’ first tweet was that Jack Monroe condoned and approved of vandalising war memorials, and the meaning of Hopkins’ second tweet was that Monroe condoned and approved of the vandalism of the Memorial to the Women of World War II. Mr Justice Warby ruled 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 for her”. The court also held that the publication of the tweets caused Jack Monroe real and substantial distress, but importantly also “serious harm to her reputation”, thereby meeting the threshold test in the Defamation Act 2013.

Lessons learned

The case was one of the first “Twitter Defamation” cases and provided useful guidance about how the courts will approach defamatory comments on Twitter in future, including the key question of whether a defamatory statement on Twitter has caused “serious harm” to the reputation of the victim, which must be proved for a defamation claim to be successful. Some key points included: • Deleting a tweet will not mean that a defamation action will automatically be unsuccessful – the key issue is the impact of the tweet on the reputation of the victim, irrespective of how long it is posted for. • Even if there is no evidence the tweet was actually believed by anyone, this does not mean that a court will find that no harm has been caused to reputation.  The Court will consider what a reasonable person, with knowledge of relevant background, would consider the tweet to mean. • The Court rejected the argument that Twitter is the “Wild West” of social media and not as authoritative as mainstream media outlets, thereby negating the seriousness of the harm caused. • The Court also rejected the argument that mistaken identity is a defence to defamation on twitter.  How we can help Capsticks’ reputation management team utilise their expertise in defamation and media law to assist our clients in dealing with situations where their reputation is at risk and/or where people are the victim of defamatory statements in the press or in social media. Capsticks can assist in a number of ways, including but not limited to: • assistance with preparing press statements and responses to media enquiries; • assistance with preparing internal briefings on reputational issues; • advice in responding to potentially defamatory statements that appear in social media outlets, including Facebook and Twitter; • advice in bringing and defending defamation claims; • assistance with investigating, and managing, complaints; and • advice on the merits of bringing, or defending, civil claims

For more information, please contact Jane Barker or John Tippett Cooper.

 

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