Laura Murray, the stakeholder manager in Jeremy Corbyn’s office at the time, complained on Twitter about a retweet by TV presenter Rachel Riley. The preliminary hearing on meaning was decided on the papers. On the court’s reading, the meaning of Ms Murray’s tweet was that Ms Riley (a) publicly stated that the then Labour leader deserved to be violently attacked and (b) in doing so, Ms Riley had shown herself to be a dangerous and stupid person who risked inciting unlawful violence. Mr Justice Nicklin found that the first assertion was meant as a statement of fact and the second as an expression of opinion, and that both were defamatory.
The defendant tried, unsuccessfully, to rely on context in her argument that the tweet would have been read an expression of opinion. Nicklin J held that the following material can be taken into account when assessing the natural and ordinary meaning of a publication: (a) matters of common knowledge: facts so well known that, for practical purposes, everybody knows them; (b) matters to be treated as part of the publication: although not set out in the publication itself, material that the ordinary reasonable reader would have read; and (c) matters of directly available context to a publication, e.g. where the statement appears as part of a series of publications.
Nicklin J ruled that the natural and ordinary meaning of the tweet was:
(1) Jeremy Corbyn had been attacked when he visited a mosque.
(2) The claimant had publicly stated in a tweet that he deserved to be violently attacked.
(3) By so doing, the claimant had shown herself to be a dangerous and stupid person who risked inciting unlawful violence. People should not engage with her.
The judge considered paragraphs (1) and (2) to be statements of fact, and paragraph (3) to be an expression of opinion. He found that the imputation that the claimant had publicly supported a violent attack on someone is plainly defamatory, as such conduct would substantially and adversely affect the attitude of other people towards the claimant (or have a tendency to do so).
While the decision was ultimately “straightforward”, this judgment contains an instructive analysis of the leading modern authorities on the legal principles that govern the determination of meaning in the law of defamation and, in particular, as it applies to social media. It boils those down into a useful checklist for the limited forms of “context” that can be taken into account in assessing the natural and ordinary meaning of an online post.
The ill-considered wording used in the tweets also serves as a cautionary tale for anyone tempted to sling eggs by Twitter.
To read the full article, click here. Written for Entertainment Law Review.