Her victory could have a stifling effect
Even people who tend to oppose censorship can agree that the law should protect us from severe forms of misrepresentation. I should not be able to declare that someone kidnaps, tortures and executes puppies, for example, without being compelled to provide evidence.
It has often been argued, on the other hand, that British libel laws are too prohibitive. Even after a landmark case in 2010 led to their partial relaxation, British laws remain very “claimant friendly” and the UK is an attractive destination for libel tourism.
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Yesterday, the British television presenter Rachel Riley won a libel suit against Laura Murray, former head of complaints for the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Justice Nicklin awarded Ms Riley £10,000 damages.
It all started in 2019 when Jeremy Corbyn was struck with an egg while visiting a mosque. Riley, an outspoken opponent of Mr Corbyn, uploaded a screenshot of a tweet that Owen Jones had posted when Nick Griffin, former leader of the British National Party, had been struck with an egg. “I think sound life advice is, if you don’t want eggs thrown at you, don’t be a Nazi,” Jones had said. “Good advice,” Riley quipped.
Murray responded by saying that Riley had claimed: “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.”
Now, there is a good case to be made that this was an overreaction. But I do not think it is unfair to suggest that the initial tweet was provocative in its mischievous ambiguity. As it happens, neither does the judge. Riley’s tweet, Nicklin ruled:
As explained in more detail above, there were two obvious meanings: the hypocrisy meaning or the meaning that suggested that Jeremy Corbyn deserved to be egged because of his political views. I am quite satisfied, on the evidence, that the Claimant was aware that the Good Advice Tweet was capable of being read in both senses. She may have intended the first, but she was certainly not blind to the second…
If it has been accepted that the tweet was obviously and deliberately vulnerable to misinterpretation, how can misinterpretation be so dramatically punished? (Yes, I know Ms Murray happens to belong to a rich family but most people don’t. Ten grand, for most of us, approaches if not reaches six months’ salary.)
It seems like a terrible injustice and one with a rich potential for a stifling effect. Nonetheless, commentators who tend to be averse to censorship are quiet if not approving. Ruth Smeeth, for example, is CEO of Index on Censorship, which claims that it “defends free expression” and “monitors threats to free speech”. And yet, she says she is “beyond glad” for Ms Riley.
I agree with Murray, Corbyn, and the Labour Party on little except that grass is green and the sky is blue. Yet freedom is not only for people who we like — and, besides, it seems irrational to cheer the misfortunes of one’s political opponents if one could fall victim to the same circumstances. Who among us has never posted an uncharitable tweet? Only those of us who are not on Twitter.