Hopkins v Monroe [2017] EWHC 433 (QB)

FOOD writer and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe has won £24,000 in damages following the trial of her libel claim over messages posted on Twitter by right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins.

Ms Hopkins – whose legal team are thought to be on a “no win, no fee” agreement – also faces paying the costs of the hearing, with her final bill expected to be more than £300,000. This case is perhaps the most stark example yet of how defamatory tweets – even if they are deleted within hours – can expose the person who posts them to an expensive claim.

The case concerned two tweets posted by Ms Hopkins in May 2015 which were critical of Ms Monroe – although Ms Hopkins had mistakenly directed the first tweet at Ms Monroe instead of at another left-wing writer, Laurie Penny. The tweets arose out of online discussion following the vandalising of a war memorial in Whitehall during a demonstration against the newly elected Conservative government in 2015.

The first tweet read: “@MsJackMonroe scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals”. It was deleted after two hours and 25 minutes. The second tweet, which was published at around the time the first was deleted, read: “Can someone explain to me – in 10 words or less – the difference between irritant @PennyRed and social anthrax @MsJackMonroe”.

Ms Monroe’s father was in the British Army and served in the Falklands War. One of her brothers is in the RAF. As a member of a family with military connections, Ms Monroe was extremely offended by the suggestion that she condoned an attack on a war memorial, and she asked for the first tweet to be deleted, for an apology, and for £5,000 to be donated by Ms Hopkins to charity. Ms Hopkins did not at any stage apologise, although she did post a brief retraction 12 days later – at 6.58am.

The High Court hearing was in front of Mr Justice Warby (who, as of 1 March 2017, is in charge of the new Media and Communications List within the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court, and so effectively will be the Judge most likely to hear libel cases). He started by describing Twitter, and has attached to the judgment (found here) an Appendix called “How Twitter Works”, which will no doubt be referred to in forthcoming cases as a guide to the appropriate jargon.

He first decided on the meaning of the tweets complained of, and found that ‘the ordinary reasonable reader of the First Tweet would understand it to mean that Ms Monroe “condoned and approved of scrawling on war memorials, vandalising monuments commemorating those who fought for her freedom”’ (at paragraph 43). He found the second tweet bore an innuendo meaning which meant to readers with knowledge of the relevant facts that Monroe “condoned and approved of the fact that in the course of an anti-government protest there had been vandalisation by obscene graffiti of the women’s war memorial in Whitehall, a monument to those who fought for her freedom” (paragraph 48).

He found that both tweets were defamatory, accepting Ms Monroe’s barrister’s submission that “right-thinking members of society generally would regard this [vandalising war memorials] as obnoxious behaviour, and would strongly disapprove of anyone who approved or condoned it” (paragraph 52). He also found that the tweets had had substantial publication, the first to some 20,000 people and the second, to as many as 100,000.

Interestingly, he observed that people who post messages on Twitter should not fall into the trap of believing that a tweet’s apparently transient nature, or the fact that it has been deleted, will necessarily save the person who tweeted it from facing a claim. At paragraph 71(2) he said that the transience of a tweet “is a weak point. What matters, when considering transience, is not the period of time for which a person is exposed to the message but the impact the message has. It is a commonplace of experience that live broadcasts can have a powerful impact, even if the viewer sees them once only. Print copies of newspapers are not often read more than once”.

Finally, he addressed the newest test that must be met in such a claim: did the publications complained of cause serious harm to Ms Monroe’s reputation, as set out in section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013? In a lengthy passage of the judgment, Warby J set out a number of factors that informed his analysis and which will be pored over by lawyers faced with such claims in future. He made it plain that simply because the tweets caused Ms Monroe distress was not the same as finding that they had caused serious harm to her reputation. But on the facts of this case, he did find that “whilst the claimant may not have proved that her reputation suffered gravely, I am satisfied that she has established that the publications complained of caused serious harm to her reputation, and met the threshold set by s 1 of the 2013 Act” (paragraph 74).

He ended by making two cogent observations. Firstly, Ms Hopkins could have avoided having to pay such a high sum in damages and costs by accepting the £5,000 offer originally made by Ms Monroe, which he described as “reasonable” (paragraph 83). Secondly, he alerted anyone who might be involved in such a case in future to be wary of deleting material from the public domain before it has been ‘captured’ for the purposes of litigation, noting the “responsibility of a litigant to retain and preserve material that may become disclosable, and the responsibility of a solicitor to take reasonable steps to ensure that the client appreciates this responsibility and performs it” (paragraph 84).

Catherine Urquhart is a member of Ely Place Chambers’ Media group

William McCormick QC, head of Ely Place Chambers, represented Sally Bercow in one of the first libel cases about the use of Twitter, and which is referred to in the Monroe judgment: McAlpine v Bercow [2013] EWHC 1342 (QB)