An early Christmas gift from the High Court
By Eloise Spensley
A decision published by the High Court has provided a veritable Christmas feast of libel principles to consider.
The case was brought by Countdown presenter and well-known Twitter user Rachel Riley, against blogger Mike Sivier.
In December 2018, Ms. Riley engaged in a Twitter based debate with a 16-year-old girl whose name was given as “Rose”.
At that time, Rose had around 10,000 followers on Twitter (as compared to Ms. Riley’s estimated 610,000) and had previously campaigned on mental health issues.
The two engaged in a sporadic back and forth interaction over the next 2-3 weeks during which time both parties were exposed to abusive messages from other Twitter users.
On 26 January 2019, Mr. Sivier published an online article entitled “Serial abuser Rachel Riley to receive ‘extra protection’ – on grounds that she is receiving abuse” (“the Article”).
In the Article, Mr. Sivier made factual allegations towards Ms. Riley claiming that she had orchestrated a campaign of online harassment of a 16 year old girl, which had incited Ms. Riley’s followers to join in and make death threats against the young girl.
In addition, the Article contained statements of opinion accusing Ms. Riley of being hypocritical, reckless, and obscene, as she too had claimed to be a victim of abuse.
The procedural history of this claim is rather complex with several hearings having taken place since the claim was issued some 3 years ago.
A trial of preliminary issue was held in December 2019 to determine the meaning of the words complained of, whether they constituted facts or opinion, and whether those words were defamatory of the claimant at common law.
Having succeeded on these points, Ms Riley made an application to strike out the defences advanced by Mr. Sivier of truth, honest opinion, and publication on a matter of public interest. At a hearing in December 2020, this application was successful and all three defences were struck out.
However, following leave to appeal, the decision was partially reversed in May 2021 and Mr. Sivier was allowed to continue with his public interest defence only.
This left two primary issues to be determined at trial: had the Article caused (or was likely to cause) serious harm to the reputation of Ms. Riley? If so, had Mr. Sivier established a defence of publication in the public interest?
Confirming the key principles set out by the Supreme Court in 2020 in the leading case of Lauchaux, and in spite of attempts by Mr. Sivier to argue that Ms. Riley’s reputation was already damaged by her own previous actions, it was held that Ms. Riley had succeeded in establishing serious harm to her reputation for reasons including the seriousness of the libel, Ms. Riley’s role as a public figure and the extent and likely spread of the publication.
Turning to Mr. Sivier’s defence of publication in the public interest, this was rejected on the basis that whilst the Article had been published on a matter of public interest and Mr. Sivier had had a belief in the public interest publication, it was held that this belief was not reasonable.
It was found that Mr. Sivier’s construction of the article had been flawed, he had failed to contact Ms. Riley to seek her comment and had no reasonable grounds for making the factual allegations he did leading to the publication of a wholly unbalanced article which misrepresented the evidential picture
In her reasoning, Mrs. Justice Steyn held: “…his belief was manifestly unreasonable. Despite the summary dismissal of his truth defence, Mr. Sivier maintained that his allegations were true, and in any event that it was reasonable for him to believe them to be true. Although the issue does not strictly arise, I have no hesitation in agreeing with Collins Rice J’s conclusion that the statement complained of was not only untrue, it was not even arguably true.”
Steyn J awarded Ms. Riley damages of £50,000 and a permanent injunction. The damages awarded may be higher than you might expect – this was due to “elements of aggravation” determined by the judge including Mr. Sivier’s “illegitimate” attempts to bring irrelevant matters into the proceedings through his own evidence.
For Mr. Sivier, this was obviously not the outcome he wanted. But for the dispassionate reader who is interested in understanding libel law, this case provides useful confirmation of many of the key principles that have to be borne in mind when considering a claim for libel: Serious Harm, Truth, Honest Opinion, Public Interest, and Damages (with elements of aggravation).
What more could the questioning journalist ask for this festive season? Merry Christmas!