A recent libel action in the High Court of England and Wales sitting in the Royal Courts of Justice examined the law of defamation and social media. In the case entitled Rachel Riley –v- Laura Murray [2020] EWHC 977 (QB) before The Honourable Mr. Justice Nicklin, the court examined whether a Tweet made in March 2019 by an aide of the then leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn was defamatory. The court looked at the offending tweet in isolation and not the context in which it was made.  The court stated that this was so as this is “what the hypothetical reader is likely to have read”. The court’s approach recognised that the nature of Twitter is such that “the essential message that is being conveyed by a Tweet is likely to be absorbed quickly by a reader”. The court noted that the context in which an offending Tweet is made is unlikely to be “absorbed by a reader” unless the context in which a tweet is made “is on Twitter and sufficiently closely connected in time, content, or otherwise that it is likely to have been in the…..reader’s view, or in their mind, at the time they read the words complained of”. The court stated that the offending tweet was “self-contained and stood alone” and that an individual reader would have read it as such without the added element of context.  

Background: Context

The first Tweet in the exchange between the parties was posted during the aftermath of an attack by a pro-Brexit supporter on Jeremy Corbyn who was hit by an egg while visiting a Mosque in March of 2019. The claimant in response to the attack on Corbyn retweeted an earlier post made two months prior to the attack on Corbyn by another Twitter user while commenting that the tweet was “good advice”. The relevant retweet which the claimant commented on as constituting “good advice” read as follows:

“I think an egg was thrown at him……if you don’t want eggs thrown at you, don’t be a Nazi.”

Following the claimant’s retweet of the above, there were a number of responses from other Twitter users including:

“Shame it wasn’t a brick”

The Defamatory Tweet?

Following the above Tweets, the Defendant and then aide of Jeremy Corbyn tweeted a reply reacting to the claimant’s retweet. It is this Tweet which is the subject of the libel action before the High Court. The Defendant’s Tweet reads as follows:

“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 claimant has pleaded that the above Tweet made by Corbyn’s aide defamed her in that it contends to show that she has “publically supported a violent attack upon Jeremy Corbyn” and that she has “shown herself to be a dangerous person who incites unlawful violence”. It was ordered by the court that prior to going to a full hearing, that the court would first examine the tweet made by the Defendant to establish whether it was defamatory. 

The Preliminary Issues

The Defendant argues that her tweet was her “reaction to, and views on, the conduct of the claimant in posting the tweet” about the attack on Corbyn. The Defendant pleaded that her tweet would have been read by the reasonable reader as a reaction to the claimant’s tweet. The Defendant outlined that the claimant had “posted a tweet……..which meant that Jeremy Corbyn deserves to be violently attacked because he is a Nazi” and that the tweet was “dangerous and stupid”.

The Court looked to a hypothetical ordinary reasonable reader in the context of a tweet. The court focused on “how a typical (i.e. an ordinary reasonable) reader” would interpret the tweet. Specifically the court relied upon Monir v Wood [2018] EWHC 3525 (QB) 90 which stated as follows:

“It is very important when assessing a Tweet not to be over-analytical……Largely, the meaning that an ordinary reasonable reader will receive from a Tweet is likely to be more impressionistic than, say, from a newspaper article, which, simply in terms of the amount of time that it takes to read, allows for at least some element of reflection and consideration. The essential message that is being conveyed in a Tweet is likely to be absorbed quickly”

The claimant argued that the Tweet made by the Defendant would have been read alone without reviewing the timeline. This is consistent with Twitter in that the message conveyed is “absorbed quickly” by the reader. The claimant stated that the Defendant’s Tweet was such that it “made a simple accusation in a straightforward and unambiguous manner”. The Defendant argued that the Tweet should be read in its proper context and outlined to the court the claimant’s retweet which preceded the Defendant’s tweet. The court noted that the context upon which the Defendant sought to rely was not available to   readers’ of the offending tweet and the Defendant could not rely “upon information which the reader might discover after reading the Tweet”.

The Decision

The court noted that the events that had transpired in the Mosque that day were not at the time of the Defendant’s Tweet common knowledge. The Defendant’s Tweet appeared in isolation.  The claimant’s tweet that the Defendant was replying to was not “hyperlinked or otherwise referenced in the Tweet”. The Tweet “stood alone” and would have presented to readers as such in the absence of context. The court held that the tweet was defamatory in that a statement “that a person had publically supported a violent attack on someone is plainly defamatory in common law”. The Defendant will now file a Defence before the matter goes to full hearing.

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