by Ben Sixsmith
Tuesday, 21
December 2021
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13:30

No one should cheer Rachel Riley’s libel triumph

Her victory could have a stifling effect
by Ben Sixsmith
Credit: Getty

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.

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:

…properly falls to be characterised as provocative, even mischievous. It was calculated to provoke a reaction and it did. As the Claimant would readily have appreciated, the words she used in the Good Advice Tweet invited and required interpretation; read only in their literal sense they were meaningless.

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…

- Mr Justice Nicklin

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.

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James Joyce
James Joyce
7 months ago

Utter tosh and bad for the UK, bad for the world, bad for free speech and freedom of thought.
I believe that there is a football hooligan currently incarcerated because of racist abuse–I don’t approve, wouldn’t do it, but it is not and should never be a real crime.
If Rachel Riley wants to engage in spirited debate–give it a go. But to sue and win over such ridiculousness sets an extremely bad precedent.
I was once the subject of a bar complaint in an appeal because I wrote that the court below’s decision or reasoning was “intellectually dishonest.” This is a phrase that is used perhaps millions of times in court documents and court opinions; it is rather anodyne if you ask me. But someone–likely a judge–made a complaint against me. I “won” in that the complaint was dismissed but I lost in the time and money (many thousands of dollars) it took to defend the case. I ended up being quoted in The New York Times as an example of the “thin skins” that judges have. Utterly disgusting, bullying behaviour. And by bullying, I mean that if a judge makes a secret (this is a clue) complaint that is utterly unfounded, knowing that this will create a “case” that must be responded to, that is bullying. In my defense and if memory serves, I was quoted as saying “I said it. I meant it. I stand behind it.”

David McDowell
David McDowell
7 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Judgements from the bench are frequently riddled with intellectual dishonesty. It’s a consequence of trying to make the facts and law fit a predetermined and inappropriate outcome.
If the complainant’s name is secret how are you to know to avoid in future.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago

I admit that Murray seems to have misread or mischaracterised Riley’s tweet and added that “this woman is dangerous as well as stupid and no one should engage with her”. As you would only need a moment’s reflection to conclude that Riley was nether dangerous nor stupid for her tweet, and you would yourself have to be rather stupid to be influenced adversely by Murray’s response, I entirely agree that it seems a storm in a teacup that was not worth £10,000. It seems that hurt feelings now command more than physical damage. I seem to remember PC Moth was awarded £10,000 by a Tribunal for her hurt feelings at being told she should drink less coke to lose weight by a PS.
I live in hope of having my feelings hurt by a stupid tweet or careless word. Perhaps I should join Twitter to see if my number comes up.

Last edited 7 months ago by Jeremy Bray
Terry Needham
Terry Needham
7 months ago

“Now, there is a good case to be made that this was an overreaction”
RR appears to have made a good case that this “overreaction” was a libel.

Andrea X
Andrea X
7 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

It seems an overreaction to me, at least with the facts as presented.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I’m all for free speech, but accusing people of being Nazis (with all the historical implications that word implies) when they’re not is slander. I hope personally a few more judgements of this nature will make people stop and think before throwing out baseless accusations against others.
You’re free to criticise and ridicule people’s beliefs, but you can’t accuse them of being something they’re clearly not

Andrea X
Andrea X
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

But it was RR that introduced the N word in relation to Corbyn and made what to me is an obvious comparison.
RR was never called a Nazi.

Last edited 7 months ago by Andrea X
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

To me her post seemed a rebuttal to Owen Jones about the egging of politicians

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

That’s certainly one way to look at it. What’s sauce for the goose, and all that…

AC Harper
AC Harper
7 months ago

It is often alleged that it is too common nowadays for people to label others as ‘racist’, ‘islamophobic’, ‘transphobic’ or ‘fascist’ without any thought for accuracy or consequence.
If this is (or becomes) socially unacceptable then how is this corrected? Perhaps it needs a flood of court cases?

Andrea X
Andrea X
7 months ago

Ok, i am stupid. But what ahs she been given £10000 for??
RR implies that JC is a Nazi and deserves to be egged
LM replies that she RR is mad and no one should engage with her.
RR gets £10000???
WTF!!

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Not given but won in a court of law. And you have the facts wrong.
RR criticises Owen Jones for defending egging as a legitimate response to politicians with whom he disagrees whilst condemning egging against those politicians with whom he agrees. ie accuses him of hypocrisy.
LM then claims that this criticism of hypocrisy amounts to support for the politician with whom Owen Jones disagreed and whom he thought legitimate to throw eggs at.
That was a deliberate distortion aimed at defaming RR.
The court heard the facts and decided that LM had deliberately tried to damage RR’s reputation and awarded damages.

Andrea X
Andrea X
7 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Gee

I have re-read the information given and I can’t find what you are saying.
Not implying you are wrong (lest I find myself in court), but the article is not complete, then.
In any case, awarding 10k for that still sounds ludicrous.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
7 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Gee

I quite agree. Assuming one can follow the facts, I am unclear as to what the fuss is all about. The Judge had a world of discretion to decide the matter and concluded it was an attempt to damage the claimant’s reputation. That the Judge said claimant’s reponse was open to interpretation has nothing at all to do with the issue and was simply an aside that implied, it seems to me, that the Judge thought the respondent should get out more.

Last edited 7 months ago by Adrian Maxwell
Charles Lewis
Charles Lewis
7 months ago

As a lawyer, this seems to me to be a very odd decision. What exactly is the libel? How do you get a clearly libelous accusation, worth ten grand, out of this tortuous chain of events? Being extremely rude (‘dangerous and stupid’) is offensive but hardly libelous, surely. If this is libelous what about Riley’s own contribution? Sounds just as bad to me!

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
7 months ago
Reply to  Charles Lewis

I’ve read this article a couple of times now and read through the comments. And my brain is definitely hurting. No matter what angle I look at it this, it hurts my head. This is about as much as I can gleen:

  1. Rachel Riley mocks Owen Jones
  2. Owen Jones asserts that being egged is a function of being a nazi
  3. RR retweets with “good advice”
  • Rachel Riley implies Corbyn is a nazi
  • Owen Jones asserts that being egged is a function of being a nazi
  • RR retweets with “good advice”

If 1 is true, it is because JC is self-evidently not a nazi and therefore OJ’s tweet is factually inaccurate.
If 2 is true, it is because JC is a nazi and RR is mocking JC by using OJ’s apparently “good advice.”

I think it’s entirely reasonable to draw either conclusion from the minimal context that is available in this article and likely at the time of the tweet.
However, more reasonable conclusions can be drawn:

  1. Owen Jones is performing cheap political point scoring by labelling politicians he doesn’t like as nazis (is this, or is this not, libel?)
  2. Rachel Riley is partaking in internet trolling of at least one of the above, and like all trolling is attempting to get a rise out of someone.
  3. Laura Murray obviously concludes the trolling is aimed at JC, probably as a result of the anti-semtism [legitimate/moral] panic and is “triggered”.

I have no feelings of sympathy for any of the three actos in this, and I believe that Rachel Riley has discovered how to monetise internet trolling.
This article, the comments below including my time, is far more time and effor than this deserves. An exchange that would have been at home on 4chan, conducted by people acting as children really should be treated as such and ignored by everyone.

Last edited 7 months ago by Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Looks like nested bullet points don’t work.

Andrea X
Andrea X
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Indeed.
I still don’t get why RR got £10k, though. Do you?

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

No, I don’t. I always thought it was necessary to demonstrate that your reputation is tangibly damaged by an allegation and the award is supposed to reflect the amount of damage done.
Considering that being accused of being a nazi by the likes of Laura Murray or Owen Jones carries about as much weight as being called a stinky face by a 2 year old, I’m a bit at a loss.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
7 months ago

A very good April Fool’s article. Odd having it in December, but, hey ho…

David McDowell
David McDowell
7 months ago

Sounds like the judge thought RR rather thin skinned and made what looks like a technical award as defamation was proven. Does anyone know what costs were awarded?

David Giles
David Giles
7 months ago

In all this debate around Rachel Riley and Laura Murray, have we all lost sight of Owen Jones being a completely hypocritical t**t?