As we settle into the digital era, an ever-increasing number of media outlets are being utilised. News stories are now travelling quicker than ever. Platforms such as Twitter are giving individuals a stage to voice their own opinions. However, an increase in the use of media has also been met with online tension, harassment and defamation claims.

So, what exactly counts as defamation? We set out two recent case studies involving high-profile individuals as examples.

What is the law of defamation?

Defamation concerns the publication of defamatory material that damages a person’s reputation. It’s also known as libel and slander. A defamatory statement lowers the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking people. The statement has no defence – so it would either tell the truth or would be one of honest opinion. There is a requirement that the statement causes serious harm to the reputation of the claimant. The law regarding defamation is contained within the Defamation Acts 1996 and 2013 as well as in common law – i.e. the decisions of the courts in regards to cases brought regarding the issue.

Recent cases

Defamation cases are often covered in the media when they relate to well-known individuals. There have been a number of recent cases involving such figures within the media.

Jack Monroe v Katie Hopkins

Ms Hopkins is a prominent commentator in the media with right-wing views. The claimant is a food blogger and writer who holds left-wing views.

The defamatory statement related to a tweet from Ms Hopkins which accused the claimant of vandalising war memorials. Ms Hopkins had confused the claimant with Laurie Penny – another left-wing writer. Penny had previously appeared to condone the posting of political statements on memorials in certain circumstances.

Ms Hopkins later tweeted that she did not understand the difference between the claimant and Ms Penny. The claimant pursued a claim for damages.

The court was asked to consider the following issues:

  1. The meanings borne by the tweets;
  2. Whether those meanings had a defamatory tendency;
  3. Had there been serious harm to their reputation;
  4. Should compensation be awarded.

The court held the following in relation to these 4 points;

  1. The first tweet meant that the claimant approved of vandalising war memorials;
  2. The meanings had a tendency to be defamatory. Right-thinking members of society would generally disapprove of such vandalism;
  3. The publication of the tweets caused the claimant not only real and substantial distress but also serious harm to reputation;
  4. The claimant was entitled to reasonable and fair compensation.
Twitter

Interestingly, the Monroe v Hopkins case looked at applying long-established principles regarding defamation, to Twitter. The court commented that Twitter was different from ordinary print publications.

A tweet that is said to be defamatory may contain a hyperlink. Tweets are also usually read as part of a series of tweets alongside the original tweet in question. This in turn, forms part of a multi-dimensional conversation.

It was said that to apply the principles to Twitter, it is better not to take an overly analytical approach to the meaning of tweets. Rather, it’s best to consider the impression the tweet would leave. This includes references to any links embedded within the tweets and the context of it (i.e. the conversations relating to it).

Matthew Zarb-Cousin v (1) Association of British Bookmakers (2) Malcolm George (2018)

In this case, the claimant is a prominent campaigner for greater regulation of the gambling industry. He was also a former advisor to Jeremy Corbyn.

The court was required to determine a preliminary issue in the claimant’s defamation claim. The defamatory comment had been made during a television news programme.

The second defendant claimed that the claimant was making deliberate misstatements regarding fixed betting terminals as he was funded by the casino industry. The claimant denied the claim and sued for defamation. The second defendant’s defence stated that it was obvious that his statement was one of opinion and not defamatory. The court had to determine the meaning of the words used by the second defendant. It needed to be decided whether serious harm would be caused to the claimant or whether he was simply stating an opinion.

The court held that the statement was communicated as factual. The idea that the claimant was a paid lobbyist would harm his reputation. The statement questioned the claimant’s integrity. It was concluded that there was a risk that the statement would cause significant harm.

Contact us

Sean McHale is a Solicitor in the dispute resolution team at Levi Solicitors LLP. He advises clients in relation to a variety of disputes matters including defamation and harassment. If you have experienced defamation or harassment and would like to speak to a solicitor, get in contact. We offer a FREE initial consultation.  Call us today on 0800 988 7756 (FREEPHONE) or email info@levisolicitors.co.uk.

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