In a judgment handed down on 10 March 2017, Jack Monroe was awarded £24,000 in damages (plus costs) in respect of two tweets published by Katie Hopkins.
This is the second high profile Twitter libel case but the first in which tweets have been considered in light of the “serious harm” threshold under the Defamation Act 2013.
Following an “anti-austerity” demonstration in London, a war memorial was vandalised, an act which was widely reported and caused public outrage. A journalist, Laurie Penny, commented on the vandalised war memorial, tweeting “I don’t have a problem with this. The bravery of past generations does not oblige us to be cowed today.” Hopkins subsequently posted two tweets regarding Penny, which were reported by several news organisations.
Just over a week later, Hopkins posted a further tweet, mistaking food blogger and writer Monroe for Penny, in which she said “@MsJackMonroe scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals?” (“first tweet”). Monroe asked Hopkins to delete the tweet, apologise and pay £5,000 to a charity. Hopkins deleted the tweet around two and half hours later, but did not apologise or retract the statement. Hopkins then posted a second tweet, stating “Can someone explain to me – in 10 words or less – the difference between irritant @PennyRed and social anthrax @JackMonroe” (“second tweet”).
Monroe issued proceedings for libel, claiming that the two tweets accused her of vandalising a war memorial and desecrating the memory of those that fought for her freedom, or alternatively of approving or condoning such behaviour.
Mr Justice Warby held that the meaning of the first tweet was that Monroe “condoned and approved of scrawling on war memorials, vandalising monuments commemorating those who fought for her freedom.” He held that the second tweet had an innuendo meaning which meant that readers with knowledge of the relevant facts believed that Monroe “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.” The judge therefore considered that the meanings were defamatory. The judge also decided that the serious harm threshold was met, having accepted Monroe’s evidence that the tweets (and subsequent abusive tweets from other users) caused her significant distress and serious harm to her reputation.
In determining the level of damages, Mr Justice Warby considered the following factors: 1) while the allegations and harm to reputation were serious, they were not grave; 2) there was not a great need for vindication, as there was no attempt to prove the truth of the allegations; 3) publication was significant, but it was not massive; 4) injury to feelings was real and substantial and had continued. Further, it had been significantly exacerbated by the way the defence was conducted.
Mr Justice Warby made two additional important observations regarding the case. First, the case could easily have been resolved at an early stage, particularly given that Monroe made a reasonable open offer to settle for £5,000 at the outset.
Second, the deletion of the first tweet, which was done at Monroe’s request, meant that Twitter analytics regarding the extent of publication were unavailable and Monroe’s Twitter records were extensively deleted. This caused difficulties in the case, although an assessment was made of the likely extent of publication based on other Twitter analytics available, the number of Hopkins’ followers and the number of visits to Hopkins’ home page on Twitter.
It is of course very important to retain and preserve material that may become disclosable in litigation, as the judge reiterated in this case. However, the difficulty with this in the context of libel claims is that a claimant will inevitably want the offending material to be removed quickly. While it is possible to keep a record of offending tweets, once they are deleted, it appears that Twitter analytics will be unavailable, which may make it difficult to analyse the extent of publication.
The judgment includes an appendix explaining “how Twitter works”, which will no doubt assist parties in future cases, and may have a wider application in other types of claims.