On the face of it, this may be seen as a blow to my own chances of winning a libel case against Rachel Riley: after more than seven months’ deliberation, a High Court judge has ruled that she has won her case against former Jeremy Corbyn aide Laura Murray.
But the reasons given by Mr Justice Nicklin do not ring true to me. I reckon there may be grounds for appeal against what may be an unsafe judgment.
The judge has partly acknowledged that the case is not cut-and-dry, because he has awarded Riley only £10,000 in damages. The reasons are explained below.
The case revolved around three tweets: one by the journalist Owen Jones, one by Riley and one by Murray.
The first, published by Mr Jones, referred to an incident in which former British National Party leader Nick Griffin was attacked with an egg. Published in January 2019, it stated: “Oh: I think an egg was thrown at him actually. I think sound life advice is, if you don’t want eggs thrown at you, don’t be a Nazi. Seems fair to me.”
On March 3 that year, then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was visiting a London mosque when he was attacked by a man wielding an egg. Later that day, Riley quote-tweeted the Owen Jones tweet, adding her comment: “Good advice” plus images of a rose (taken to indicate the Labour Party’s ‘Rose’ emblem) and an egg.
Ms Murray responded twice to Riley’s tweet. First, in a direct reply, she stated: “You are publicly encouraging violent attacks against a man who is already a target for death threats. Please think for a second about what a dangerous and unhealthy role you are now choosing to play in public life.” Riley did not respond to this, nor did she take court action over it.
Instead, she took Murray to court for libel over a second tweet which was not a reply to her own (meaning Riley’s tweet would not have been seen by people reading Murray’s). It stated: “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.”
Murray offered up three defences: Truth (that her comment was factually accurate), Honest Opinion (that the opinions she expressed were honest, based on facts) and published in the public interest (and that her belief that is was in the public interest was reasonable).
Mr Justice Nicklin rejected all three defences because Murray had not published Riley’s tweet (again) in connection with her second tweet, and had not said that her comment was only one possible interpretation of Riley’s words.
The judgment states that another possible interpretation, put forward by Riley’s followers and supporters at the time, was that Owen Jones was a hypocrite for suggesting that people with views he doesn’t like should be attacked with eggs while those with views he does like shouldn’t.
But that’s not borne out by his actual tweet, as I’ve shown above – nor by Riley’s words. She said his tweet was “Good advice”, indicating that she agrees with his premise. And the context – the fact that the tweet coincides with such an attack on Jeremy Corbyn – implies that it should be applied to him, otherwise why would she have tweeted at all?
So she was apparently saying that Corbyn has objectionable views and may therefore be a target for egg attacks.
In her evidence at trial, Riley said that she had tweeted the “Good advice” tweet “sarcastically” – but there is no indication of sarcasm in the tweet itself.
She seems to have bolted on an interpretation of her tweet, based on what her followers/supporters put forward – with no evidence to justify them having done so – in her defence.
If readers have no reason to believe that a message is not to be read as a straight statement, then it seems to me that it should not be suggested that it wasn’t one. If Riley had included </sarcasm> or a similar indication, matters would be different.
She could have used an emoji to show her intent but she didn’t.
Her tweet provides absolutely no information suggesting that she did not mean anything other than what her tweet said – that Mr Jones’s tweet was good advice that may be applied to Jeremy Corbyn.
And why would she have waited more than two months before saying that Mr Jones’s tweet was hypocritical, and in such an opaque way? I feel sure that most of us would have forgotten his comment after such a long time.
So – to me, at least – it seems unreasonable that anybody may have come to a conclusion that Riley had tweeted sarcastically or was commenting on any perceived hypocrisy by Mr Jones.
And the judgment relies on that interpretation being one to which readers may have reasonably come.
The judge states that Murray misled her readers by misinterpreting the material. But with nothing in Riley’s tweet to support her claim that she was being sarcastic, or to support any claim that it referred to hypocrisy, it is hard to justify that claim.
And with only one alternative interpretation of Riley’s tweet – whose reasonableness seems clearly questionable – it seems that Murray may have been well within her rights to put forward her own interpretation as the only one possible.
In fairness to the judge, he does point out that Riley’s tweet could have been clearer and that the fact that it isn’t suggests “provocation”.
He wrote: “There is a clear element of provocation in the Good Advice Tweet, in the sense that the Claimant must have readily appreciated that the meaning of the Good Advice Tweet … could be read as suggesting, at least, that Jeremy Corbyn deserved to be egged because of his political views.
“In the context of her own high-profile campaign against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, the risk of the Good Advice Tweet being read in that way was obvious.
“In that respect, the Claimant can hardly be surprised – and she can hardly complain – that the Good Advice Tweet provoked the reaction it did, including the Defendant’s Tweet.”
I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that there are clear grounds for appeal against this judgment, because the judge did not adequately demonstrate that there was another reasonable interpretation of Riley’s tweet.
The judgment as a whole gives me a certain amount of hope for myself (as there are points that support similar elements in my case), but also serious grounds for concern. Looking at the information above, I’m sure you can appreciate my reasons.
My CrowdJustice fund is still open – and will certainly be necessary if I end up facing a similar judgment and the possibility of having to appeal (again).
Please help by doing one or several of the following:
Consider making a donation yourself, via the CrowdJustice page.
Email your friends, asking them to pledge to the CrowdJustice site.
Post a link to Facebook, asking readers to pledge.
Since Riley’s court action against me started, it seems I’m not going to be allowed to have a worry-free Christmas. I had hearings in December 2019 and December last year, and while this judgment does not affect me directly, it has potential ramifications for my case.
A show of (financial) support would make a very strong statement right now.
Have YOU donated to my crowdfunding appeal, raising funds to fight false libel claims by TV celebrities who should know better? These court cases cost a lot of money so every penny will help ensure that wealth doesn’t beat justice.
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