Posted by Sheridan Hendzel, Solicitor
New media and communications list and the risk of trolling
As the courts recognise a need to deal efficiently with ever-increasing defamation claims, largely from online publications, a new list within the Queen’s Bench Division called the “Media and Communications List” has been created. Defamation specialist Mr Justice Warby is the Judge in charge of this list. But how easy is it to prove defamation and what role does social media play?
The universal reach of social media sites and websites means that authors, companies, politicians, celebrities and anyone who wants to sell the latest fad have the potential to reach a worldwide audience. With a simple tap of the thumb, material is capable of going viral within hours of an original post and it is, of course, the scandalous that attract the most attention. Enter, the keyboard warrior.
Coinciding with Warby’s appointment, he heard the defamation claim brought by Jack Monroe against Katie Hopkins for allegedly libellous tweets in May 2015.
Hopkins tweeted Monroe in the mistaken belief that she had expressed the recent defacing of a war memorial was an acceptable form of protest for anti-austerity. Monroe alleges that Hopkins tweets caused serious reputational harm and led to death threats.
To establish a statement was defamatory, Monroe had to show Hopkins’ tweets caused or are likely to cause serious harm to her reputation and must have caused or are likely to cause serious financial loss. The ‘serious harm’ requirement is essentially a threshold test and unfortunately, there is little merit in progressing a claim for injury to feelings or insignificant loss, regardless of how awful the publication may be.
A Court can award an injunction to restrain further publication, however Hopkins removed her first allegedly offending tweet within a number of hours. In similar cases, if the material remains online or accessible, the Court can order that a summary of the Court’s judgment is published, the statement is removed from a website or the distribution of the defamatory material ceased.
Monroe claimed damages to cover her losses and any proposed future loss and although I cannot comment on the value of her claim, Hopkins was at risk of an award to pay damages of up to £275,000 which is the limit for defamatory claims.
The High Court determined that Hopkins pay £24,000 in damages to Monroe.
Hopkins will likely regret not having taken advantage of the statutory procedure available to defendants who have made a legitimate error and would like to make amends rather than defend the claim. Essentially, Hopkins could have deleted the tweet and offered to publish an apology. In making an offer of amends, it is not compulsory to offer compensation, but, once accepted, the complainant cannot bring or continue defamation proceedings. It seems Monroe may have thought of this on that day in May 2015 as her second response tweet to Hopkins requested a public apology and £5,000 to be paid to migrant rescue to drop the matter.
We bring and defend defamation claims on behalf of companies and individuals and we always act with discretion and efficiency. In contrast to the Hopkins and Monroe debacle, the nature of these cases is to keep the matter as confidential as possible because there is a risk of magnifying the alleged damaging effect of the publication or statement.
We will be providing analysis on the ‘serious harm’ requirement and the judgement of Mr Justice Warby shortly. In the meantime, Mr Justice Warby expects to begin consulting on ways to assess any improved practical arrangements which could be made for cases in the Media and Communications List.
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