Katie Hopkins has been ordered to pay £24,000 in damages and £107,000 on account of Jack Monroe’s legal costs following a libel case relating to comments published on twitter.
The case concerned online comments made by journalist, Laurie Penny that she did not have a problem with the vandalising of a Memorial to the Women of WWII in Whitehall which occurred when an anti-austerity demonstration in London turned violent.
On 18 May 2015, Hopkins mixed up Penny with blogger, Jack Monroe when she tweeted: “@MsJackMonroe scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals?” The tweet was deleted around 2 hours and 25 minutes later. However, Hopkins then went on to post a second tweet later that evening to ask “Can someone explain to me – in 10 words or less – the difference between irritant @PennyRed and social anthrax @Jack Monroe”.
In the court decision handed down on 10 March 2017, the judge found that both tweets were defamatory of Monroe and caused serious harm to her reputation. The judge held that Monroe was entitled to fair and reasonable compensation and ordered Hopkins to pay damages of £16,000 for the first tweet and £8,000 for the first tweet.
Hopkins, like many others, appears to believe that there is an unfettered freedom of speech across interactive social media platforms, such as twitter. She describes herself in the case as “confrontational, outspoken, forthright, often outrageous and frequently flippant in her journalism and social media activity, and very known as such”, perhaps to make the point that people are accustomed to her journalistic style and that her social media postings would not in fact have caused any real harm to Monroe’s reputation.
In its decision, the court recognised the conversational nature of twitter as a social media platform. However, it also recognised that the publication of a tweet has a far greater reach than a private conversation between two people, and that a tweet may be no less transient than a print newspaper article and no less powerful than a live television broadcast. In this case, the court accepted that Hopkins’ tweets were likely to have been seen by at least 20,000 internet users, before even taking into account the reposting of the tweets by other twitter users and media outlets.
In all the circumstances, the court was satisfied that the tweets had caused Monroe real and substantial distress and had caused sufficient harm to her reputation to satisfy the statutory threshold for serious harm.
This is the first time that the court has been asked to consider the “serious harm” test under the Defamation Act 2013 in the context of twitter postings. The decision provides an important and timely reminder of the court’s willingness to treat defamatory postings across social media as seriously as publications in more traditional print mediums. As this case shows, tweeting (or even retweeting) a defamatory statement can have very serious and costly consequences, both for the publisher and for the target of the tweet.