An egg, a Tweet and £10,000 in damages
The High Court in England and Wales has recently handed down a judgment awarding Countdown presenter Rachel Riley £10,000 following comments made on Twitter in 2019 by a former aide to Jeremy Corbyn after he was struck by an egg while visiting a mosque.
This matter arose from the now well-known incident on 3rd March 2019, when Jeremy Corbyn was struck by an egg while visiting a North London mosque. A reporter for The Guardian posted the following on Twitter: “I think sound life advice is, if you don’t want eggs thrown at you, don’t be a Nazi.” The Claimant, Ms Riley, re-Tweeted this Tweet, stating “Good advice” and included a rose and an egg emoji. This was later referred to as the ‘Good Advice Tweet’ by the court.
The Defendant, Ms Murray, the Stakeholder Manager for Jeremy Corbyn who was, at that time, leader of the Labour Party, posted a series of Tweets, including the following:
“Today Jeremy Corbyn went to his local mosque for Visit My Mosque Day, and was attacked by a Brexiteer. Rachel Riley tweets that Corbyn deserves to be violently attacked because he is a Nazi. This woman is as dangerous as she is stupid. Nobody should engage with her. Ever.”
The next day, Ms Murray awoke to many abusive messages in response to her Tweet. She subsequently deactivated her Twitter account and, on 15th March 2019, deleted the Tweet.
Ms Riley proceeded to sue Ms Murray for libel, arguing that her own Tweet was sarcastic and that she did not call Mr Corbyn a Nazi, and claiming Ms Murray’s response had caused damage to her reputation.
Preliminary Trial of the Issue of Meaning
In a judgment handed down on 24th April 2020, the court held that the natural and ordinary meaning of the Defendant’s Tweet was that:
- Jeremy Corbyn had been attacked when he visited a mosque.
- Ms Riley had publicly stated in a Tweet that he deserved to be violently attacked.
- By doing so, Ms Riley had shown herself to be a dangerous and stupid person who risked inciting unlawful violence. People should not engage with her.
Issues for Determination by the High Court
The High Court had a number of issues to determine, as outlined below:
- Was there serious harm to the Claimant’s reputation? Unlike in Northern Ireland, for a successful claim in defamation in England & Wales, a claimant must prove that serious harm was caused, or is likely to be caused, to the reputation of the claimant as a result of the publication (s1 Defamation Act 2013). The Claimant identified and relied upon various pieces of evidence, including posts on social media responding to the Defendant’s Tweet and discussions across Facebook, to demonstrate there had been serious harm to her reputation. The Court held that the Claimant demonstrated, as a fact, that the harm caused to her reputation by publication of the Defendant’s Tweet was serious.
- Is the Factual Allegation substantially true? Where a defence of truth is pleaded, the court must determine whether the sting of the libel, i.e. the defamatory imputation arising from the meaning of the statement complained of, is substantially true. The Court held that, while the ‘Good Advice Tweet’ was open to more than one interpretation and was therefore ambiguous, the Defendant, in deciding not to include the ‘Good Advice Tweet’ in her post, removed that important ambiguity. The Court held that, in doing so, the Defendant’s Tweet was a misrepresentation of what the Claimant had said in the ‘Good Advice Tweet’ and was therefore not substantially true.
- Is the Opinion protected as honest comment? The Defendant sought to rely on the defence of honest comment under section 3 Defamation Act 2013. The Court held that, while the defence of honest opinion provides a degree of latitude in the proof of facts upon which an honest person could have held the expressed opinion, “it does not provide an escape route for defendants who have expressed an opinion on stated facts they cannot prove to be true”. The Court dismissed this element of the Defendant’s defence.
- Was the Tweet a publication on a matter of public interest?
In applying the principles established in the leading case of Economou v de Freitas  EMLR 7, the Court was satisfied that the Defendant’s Tweet was on a matter of public interest and that the Defendant believed that publishing it was also in the public interest. However, the Court held that the Defendant had not demonstrated that her belief was reasonable and rejected her submissions that it was an unjustifiable interference with her right of freedom of expression.
In assessing damages, the Court held that while posting the ‘Good Advice Tweet’ could not be described as “bad conduct” of the Claimant, it “properly falls to be characterised as provocative, even mischievous.” The Court held that there was a “clear element of provocation” in the ‘Good Advice Tweet’ and the Claimant cannot be surprised or complain that the ‘Good Advice Tweet’ provoked the reaction it did.
Reflecting on these factors, together with the seriousness of the allegation and the extent of its publication, the Court awarded damages of £10,000 to the Claimant.
The judgment in this case Riley v Murray  EWHC 3437 (QB) can be found here.