Good advice from the High Court for those who tweet

14th January 2022

On 3 March 2019, Channel 4’s Countdown presenter Rachel Riley tweeted a screenshot of an earlier post by Guardian columnist Owen Jones about an attack on the former BNP leader Nick Griffin. Mr Jones’ post said:

“I think sound life advice is, if you don’t want eggs thrown at you, don’t be a Nazi.”

Riley’s tweet added “good advice” to Mr Jones’ post, with emojis of a red rose and an egg. She was referring to an incident in which Jeremy Corbyn MP was assaulted with an egg at Finsbury Park Mosque.

Shortly after, Labour Party aide Laura Murray tweeted:

“Today Jeremy Corbyn went to his local mosque for Visit My Mosque Day, and was attacked by a Brexiteer. Rachel Riley tweets that 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.”

This prompted Ms Riley to bring a libel claim against Ms Murray.

On 21 December 2021 in Riley v Murray [2021] EWHC 3437 (QB), Mr Justice Nicklin awarded £10,000 in damages to Ms Riley over the tweet. The judge held that Ms Riley must have readily appreciated that her tweet was ambiguous and could be read as suggesting, at least, that Jeremy Corbyn deserved to be egged because of his political views. He described Ms Riley’s conduct as “provocative, even mischievous”.

However, the judge held that Ms Murray misrepresented Ms Riley’s tweet and put forward the “very worst construction that could be put” by removing the element of ambiguity in it and adding elements, being that Ms Riley had stated that Mr Corbyn “deserved to be violently attacked”.

Accordingly, he rejected Ms Murray’s defences of honest opinion and truth. Rejecting her public interest defence, the judge accepted that Ms Murray believed her own tweet was in the public interest. He also accepted that Ms Murray did not wish to drive additional traffic to Ms Riley’s tweet and therefore did not retweet or include it in hers. However, he rejected this as a good enough reason to deprive readers of accurate information about, and the proper context of, Ms Riley’s tweet.

The court accepted that Twitter is a fast-moving medium and this must be reflected in the court’s assessment of the objective meaning of tweets. However, the judge warned those who tweet impetuously: “Tweet in haste, repent at your leisure (as most defamation cases involving Twitter appear to bear out)!”

Top tip: When making statements or comments on what others have published including on social media and those relating to public interest, ensure that you link, quote or accurately describe the original publication.