Media Disputes Associate, Hugo Mason, examines the case of Rachel Riley in her libel claim against journalist Mike Sivier.
Rachel Riley has succeeded in her libel claim against journalist Mike Sivier over an article that was published on his ‘Vox Political’ website headlined “Serial abuser Rachel Riley to receive ‘extra protection’ – on grounds that she is receiving abuse” (the Article). The meaning of the Article was held to mean that Ms Riley had "engaged upon, supported and encouraged a campaign of online abuse and harassment of a 16-year-old girl, conduct which has also incited her followers to make death threats towards her" and that she had acted “hypocritically”, “recklessly and irresponsibly” and “obscenely”.
Following principles laid down in Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd  AC 612, Ms Riley succeeded on establishing serious harm to her reputation on an inferential case based on a combination of the seriousness of the libel; Ms Riley’s personal circumstances and role; the extent of publication; and the likelihood that people who had read the Article would have believed it to be true and that Ms Riley’s reputation would have suffered as a result.
Mr Sivier attempted to argue that Ms Riley had a pre-existing bad reputation and that those who read the Article would already have made their minds up about Ms Riley, but the court rejected his arguments. His attempts to rely on tweets and articles published before his Article fell afoul of the rule in Dingle v Associated Newspapers, and his attempts to cross-examine Ms Riley on other irrelevant matters by way of “background context” were deemed inappropriate.
Although the court accepted that Mr Sivier genuinely believed it was in the public interest to publish the allegations in the Article, his public interest defence failed as that belief was manifestly unreasonable. The Article was wholly unbalanced and Mr Sivier a) had failed to make such enquiries as were reasonably required in the circumstances; b) had no reasonable grounds for making the factual allegations that he did; and c) had misrepresented the evidential picture.
There were a number of flaws in Mr Sivier’s journalistic process. In particular, he did not put his allegations to Ms Riley in advance of publication or give her an opportunity to comment; this was especially important in the circumstances of this case as he had made a number of assumptions and adopted perverse interpretations of what Ms Riley had written on Twitter, leading him to conclusions that were not supportable.
Whilst these flaws were enough to defeat his public interest defence, the judge also noted that his allegations were not only untrue, they were not even arguably true.
Ms Riley was awarded £50,000 in damages as vindication, and an injunction requiring Mr Sivier to remove the Article and not to repeat it or words to similar effect in future.
This case provides some helpful clarity on what constitutes acceptable evidence of a pre existing bad reputation. A person might be controversial or even unpopular amongst the recipients of a publication, but those recipients can still think worse of that person when faced with a fresh allegation regarding a separate sector of the individual’s life. In this case, the relevant sector of Ms Riley’s life was her treatment of children, and in particular whether she has a pre existing reputation for harassing and abusing them. The court found, emphatically, that she did not.
It is useful to remember this boundary, particularly in light of Banks v Cadwalladr  EWHC 1417 (QB) where the defendant successfully argued that no serious harm arose as the recipients of their publication were likely to be within their “echo chamber” and likely to consist of people whose opinion of the claimant was of no consequence to them.
The aggravated damages awarded in respect of Mr Sivier’s cross examination will also hopefully dissuade future defendants from attempting to bring irrelevant matters into a trial.