Different accounts of tweeted libel

The media has been under the gun for lack of accuracy and fake news. There have always been issues with different accounts, slants and views.

Here’s and illustration of this, in a libel case in England as a result of a spat on Twitter that began with Katie Hopkins taking a swipe at the wrong person.

Beware – it’s not just potentially what is tweeted (or posted in social media), it is how it is dealt with if someone has a valid complaint.

Nelly posted…

Great to hear from *Katie Hopkins* that she intends to appeal the *ridiculous libel judgement* that went against her over some harmless little tweet for God sake ❗

…and linked to this blog post: Britain’s medieval libel laws should be kept away from Twitter that explains how it all happened.

This is the case of Jack Monroe, food blogger and the only working-class person in Britain the Guardianlikes, suing Katie Hopkins, a foghorn made flesh. The details of the case are so brain-fryingly petty that I’m embarrassed to recount them. But needs must.

In May 2015 Hopkins asked Monroe in a tweet if she had ‘scrawled on any [war] memorials recently’. Monroe has never scrawled on a war memorial. Hopkins had mixed her up with New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny, who did once say it was okay that protesters against austerity wrote ‘F**k Tory scum’ on a war memorial.

Realising her mistake, Hopkins deleted the tweet a few hours later. She followed it up with a tweet asking if someone could explain the difference between Monroe and Penny. Monroe fired off a legal letter and then, get this, Hopkins retracted her tweet. On 1 June 2015 she tweeted: ‘@MsJackMonroe I was confused about identity. I got it wrong.’

So Hopkins makes a mistake, deletes and retracts it, and yet two years later she’s found guilty of defamation and ordered to pay damages and costs that some estimate will be close to £300,000. What’s going on?

It seems to hinge on Hopkins’ failure to say sorry. That was one of Monroe’s demands pre-trial. Monroe has since tweeted to those of us ‘wanging on about free speech’ that ‘“Sorry” would have been free speech. Like literally, free.’ So Hopkins has been severely financially punished for failing to demonstrate sufficient contrition? What century is this?

That someone can be made to suffer profound financial hardship for making a mistake that she later retracted should worry anyone who believes in free speech. Hopkins intimated something that was untrue, yes. People shouldn’t do that. But the fact is, sometimes they do. Especially on Twitter, that hotbed of hyperbole.

But is that how it happened? A different version from the Guardian in Jack Monroe wins Twitter libel case against Katie Hopkins:

The writer and food blogger Jack Monroe has won a libel action against the Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins and been awarded £24,000 damages, in a row over tweets suggesting Monroe approved of defacing a war memorial during an anti-austerity demonstration in Whitehall.

Monroe was not awarded full costs, but, since both legal teams were on a no-win-no-fee basis, Monroe will not have to pay. Hopkins’ side has been ordered to make an interim payment of £107,000 within 28 days. The final costs figure has yet to be assessed.

That’s not (yet at least) close to “some estimate will be close to £300,000″.

The judge, Mr Justice Warby, found that Hopkins’ tweets were defamatory and that there had been “serious harm” to Monroe’s reputation, though that harm was not “very serious” or “grave”.

The threshold for libel in the UK is “serious harm”.

The case centred on a Twitter exchange in May 2015, in which Hopkins confused two well-known anti-austerity commentators: Monroe and Laurie Penny, a columnist for the New Statesman. Penny had tweeted about a memorial to the women of the second world war in Whitehall having been vandalised with the words “Fuck Tory scum” during an anti-austerity demonstration.

Commenting on the graffiti, Penny tweeted from her account @PennyRed that she “[didn’t] have a problem” with the vandalism as a form of protest, as “the bravery of past generations does not oblige us to be cowed today”.

Hopkins attributed the opinion to Monroe and tweeted to her then account @MsJackMonroe: “Scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals?”

When Monroe, who is from an armed forces family, responded furiously and demanded £5,000 for a migrants’ charity on threat of a libel action, Hopkins deleted the original tweet but followed it up with one asking what the difference was between “irritant Penny and social anthrax Monroe”.

Shortly after Hopkins’ original message, Monroe, a contributor to the Guardian, tweeted in response: “I have NEVER ‘scrawled on a memorial’. Brother in the RAF. Dad was a Para in the Falklands. You’re a piece of shit.”

Monroe later sent a second message asking Hopkins to apologise: “Dear @KTHopkins, public apology + £5K to migrant rescue and I won’t sue. It’ll be cheaper for you and v satisfying for me.”

Hopkins deleted the first tweet but shortly afterwards tweeted: “Can someone explain to me – in 10 words or less – the difference between irritant @PennyRed and social anthrax @MsJackMonroe.”

Monroe’s lawyers argued that the second tweet carried an innuendo that Monroe approved or condoned the vandalism, which would cause lasting damage to her reputation. Monroe told the court the exchange had led to abuse from others on Twitter including death threats, and that the affair had been “an 18-month unproductive, devastating nightmare”.

Hopkins did not appear in court, but her lawyers argued that it was “a relatively trivial dispute” that was over in a few hours, and that “no lasting harm, and certainly no serious harm” had been caused to Monroe.

Monroe’s lawyer, Mark Lewis, said after the judgement that Hopkins had obstinately refused to apologise throughout, and had conducted her defence by “slinging as much mud as possible” to hide the false allegation.

“The price of not saying sorry has been very high,” Lewis said. “Hopkins has had to pay out of her own pocket a six-figure sum in damages and costs for a tweet that should have been deleted within minutes as soon as she was told it was wrong. On this occasion, the cost of renting that gob was particularly high.”

That puts quite a different slant on the story, describing more than “so Hopkins makes a mistake, deletes and retracts it”, but it’s debatable whether it justifies an expensive libel case and a sizeable award of damages.

However it’s difficult to judge without at least knowing substantial factual details of the case.

Leave a comment

6 Comments

  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  March 17, 2017

    I think the legal costs for such a trivial case between a couple of bumptious egos are indefensible and a disgrace to the UK justice system. As for the decision, I seriously doubt the damage to the plaintiff’s reputation. Those who hated her on political grounds anyway or approved of her on the same grounds are highly unlikely to have changed their minds. The rest of the population probably neither heard about it or cared.

    Reply
    • Kitty Catkin

       /  March 17, 2017

      It seems to have a fair amount of publicity in the UK. It’s about time that someone called Hopkins and her big nasty mouth to account. If she really mistook someone called Monroe for someone else called Penny, she must be even stupider than I thought.

      Reply
      • Nelly Smickers

         /  March 17, 2017

        Keep an eye out next week KC, *Nifty Nelly* will post another recipe with only *2 ingredients*……thin sliced lo-cal thin quinoa bread – topped with chopped raw liver. You’ll luv it ❗ 😄

        Reply
  2. Nelly Smickers

     /  March 17, 2017

    @ 9:38pm

    Here we go then PG…this interview *just in* from the lady herself 😄

    https://twitter.com/DurraniMix/842653930547003392

    Reply

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