Riley libel trial: Mike’s barnstorming cross-examination performance (part one)

I am told my performance in the witness box was something of a “tour de force”.

After Rachel Riley gave her evidence on the morning of July 18, I was sworn in after lunch. I had not finished giving my evidence by the time court adjourned for the day, meaning I had to remain on oath overnight and could not talk to anybody about what I had said.

That afternoon, Ms Riley was still in the court; she sat behind her legal team pulling faces at me and making gestures of impatience with what I was saying. These constant interruptions induced a certain amount of annoyance in me, causing me to be “trenchant” in my responses (as I was told the following day, after I finished giving my evidence.

On Tuesday morning, Ms Riley was not present and the hour’s worth of cross-examination that took place on that day was altogether more civil than the previous afternoon’s.

I cannot give a verbatim account of what happened because I was directly participating in the trial and was unable to take notes. I can provide information on most of what was discussed.

Ms Riley’s counsel, John Stables, started with an attack on my claim that I had a “reasonable belief” that my article was in the public interest. According to the law, if I had not done my research, it would be impossible to claim that any such belief was reasonable.

So he suggested that my “Serial abuser…” article, over which Ms Riley had sued me, had been cobbled together in haste after I had read a Guardian piece on January 26, 2019, in which she had said she needed bodyguards at work due to online abuse.

He tried to convince the judge that I had gone to the two articles by Shaun Lawson, “Enough is enough…” and “Beneath contempt…” and cherry-picked elements from them that supported my claim that she was a hypocrite because she had triggered abuse and harassment of a teenage girl with mental health problems, who was entirely unable to rely on bodyguard protection.

And he said all this happened in around two hours.

I responded by pointing out that I had published an article on January 10 that year, about the abuse suffered by the 16-year-old girl. In that article, I had expressed my dismay at the direction Ms Riley’s political interests had taken.

It therefore followed that, when the first of the Lawson articles (“Enough is enough…”) appeared, I would not only read it but research its source material – the Twitter exchanges between Ms Riley, the girl and third parties who also commented, to ensure that the accusations against this wealthy television celebrity were grounded in fact – and that I would do the same when the second piece (“Beneath contempt…”) came out.

I carried out this research in my spare time, and I estimated that it took me around 24 hours over the two-week period leading up to “Serial abuser”.

Therefore, when the Guardian piece came out, I was certain that the source material bore out what Mr Lawson had written. I will discuss it in a future article (possibly several).

The Guardian piece took me by surprise; I did not have the time to write a detailed article explaining why Ms Riley was a hypocrite – but then, I didn’t have to.

Instead, I opted to write my article as a “short, sharp shock” – using bullet points to highlight appropriate parts of Mr Lawson’s articles that showed how Ms Riley had caused trouble for the girl, including abuse, harassment, dogpiling and (allegedly) death threats.

This information was either borne out by the underlying Twitter exchanges or by research carried out by Mr Lawson himself – and I distanced myself from this by quoting his information directly from his article; I did check with him online, but those were his facts, collected by him.

So it was clear that my belief that there was a public interest in publishing my article was entirely reasonable, I said. I had done my research and was as sure of my facts as I could have been.

Nevertheless, Mr Stables returned to this supposition again and again, even though it was a theory he had plucked from the air, whereas my evidence fitted known events.

At one point, he referred to the Editors’ Code published by press regulator IPSO, falsely (I note) claiming that it states that a reporter should keep notes on every article they write. Why had I not kept any notes?

My response was short and to the point: at the time I was going through the Lawson and Twitter material, I was not preparing an article.

While there is no stipulation about note-taking in that code of practice, there is an entire section devoted to the public interest which I shall quote here. It states:

“1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

“2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

“3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

“4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication – or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

“5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.”

The public interest in my article included – from the above: protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation, and raising or contributing to a matter of public debate (online bullying and harassment including death threats; the power of an adult celebrity compared to the relative powerlessness of a vulnerable child suffering anxiety; mental health; anti-Semitism; and the public conduct of a prominent public figure and, in particular, statements she had made or caused to be made publicly in national print and broadcast media and on Twitter).

I also relied on the public interest in freedom of expression itself, and of course in relying on material on Twitter, in the Lawson articles and in the Guardian, I was also using material that was already in the public domain.

Demonstrating my reasonable belief in the public interest was the reason I was put in the witness box.

If you are satisfied that I responded well to the questions discussed above, please contribute to my CrowdJustice fund, which is still short of the full amount needed to pay my legal team for their excellent work on the case and at the trial. Here’s how you can:

Make a donation via the CrowdJustice page. Keep donating regularly until you see the total pass the amount I need.

Email your friends, asking them to pledge to the CrowdJustice site.

Post a link to Facebook, asking readers to pledge.

On Twitter, tweet in support, quoting the address of the appeal.

Use other social media in the same way.

And don’t forget that if you’re having trouble, or simply don’t like donating via CrowdJustice, you can always donate direct to me via the Vox Political PayPal button at the bottom of this article, where it appears on that website. But please remember to include a message telling me it’s for the crowdfund!

Next time, I hope to discuss Ms Riley’s claim that I did not provide her with an opportunity to reply to the allegations in my article.