On 20 December 2021 Nicklin J handed down judgment in the libel claim brought by Rachel Riley against Laura Murray in respect of a tweet in which Ms Murray criticised Ms Riley for a tweet commenting on an attack on Jeremy Corbyn whilst visiting the Finsbury Park Mosque in March 2019. The Judge found that Ms Riley must have realised that her tweet was ambiguous and that there was an obvious risk that it would be read as suggesting, at least, that Mr Corbyn deserved to have been attacked with an egg because of his political views. He held that it was “provocative, even mischievous”.
However, he found that when Ms Murray referred to Ms Riley’s tweet as having “publicly stated …that [Mr Corbyn] deserved to be violently attacked” this was not true, because she had failed to qualify that statement by reference to the other meaning(s) that the tweet could bear. On that basis the Judge decided that Ms Murray’s honest opinion defence also failed. Although he expressly rejected the allegation that Ms Murray had not held the opinion she expressed (or had been motivated by any hostility to Ms Riley), as she had not accurately reflected the meanings of the tweet, she could not benefit from the honest opinion defence. The Judge also dismissed Ms Murray’s defence that she had reasonably believed that she was making a statement on a matter of public interest. He accepted that Ms Riley’s tweet was a matter of public interest and that Ms Murray believed that it was in the public interest to react as she had done, but held that because she did not provide readers with what the Judge considered to be an accurate account of what Ms Riley’s tweet meant, Ms Murray’s belief was not reasonable.
Given the nature of her tweet the Judge stated that Ms Riley “can hardly be surprised – and can hardly complain – that [her tweet] provoked the reaction it did, including [Ms Murray’s] tweet”. On that basis he awarded £10,000 by way of damages.
The implications of this decision for those who make statements as to what others have published (whether on social media or elsewhere) on matters of public interest may be far-reaching. If, in order to guard against a claim for libel, it is necessary not only to accurately reflect a meaning of which criticism is made, but also to accurately reflect one or more other potential meanings (which may not reflect badly on the writer) or even to remind readers that other people may construe what was written differently, those who choose to criticise what others say or write will need to take more care than usual before picking up their pens, keyboards or phones.
A link to the full judgment is here.
William McCormick QC, instructed by Adam Tudor and Helena Shipman of Carter Ruck represented Ms Murray.