In what will surely come to be regarded as a landmark decision in the matter of what may or may not be considered as libel on social media, a British judge has ruled that tweets by a Daily Mail columnist about writer and food blogger Jack Monroe were indeed libellous. The columnist, Katie Hopkins has been told to pay Monroe £24,000 in damages, plus legal costs.
For those of us who know how unpleasant some conversations can become on Twitter, this case provides a bit of clarity on what the limits of abuse and accusation are which tweeters (or twits) should not exceed. A ‘twitter storm’ is the term that we use to describe the explosion of tweets on any particularly polarising issue: thousands of people join in the discussion, opinions are expressed, abuse and threats hurled around, and it all becomes very nasty indeed. And often a twitter storm has very many angry people saying very many offensive things.
This libel case concerned tweets from May 2015, in which Hopkins confused Jack Monroe with Laurie Penny, a columnist for The New Statesman. Both women (Monroe and Penny) are well known anti-austerity campaigners and have been very critical of the Conservative government’s spending cuts in the social sector. The tweets in question concerned a war memorial being vandalised with graffiti during an anti-austerity protest, when ‘F*** Tory scum’ was written on a memorial to the women of the Second World War, in Whitehall.
Penny had tweeted that she “didn’t have a problem” with this vandalism as a form of protest as “the bravery of past generations does not oblige us to be cowed today”. This incensed Hopkins who instead of replying to Penny, tweeted to Monroe “Scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom”. Monroe, who is from an armed forces family, responded angrily and demanded that Hopkins either donate £5000 to a migrants’ charity (Hopkins’ columns are mostly fairly xenophobic and negative about migrants and refugees), or else face a libel action.
Monroe asked for an apology but Hopkins just tweeted “Can anybody explain to me in 10 words or less — the difference between @PennyRed and social anthrax @MsJackMonroe.”
Refusing to apologise has proved costly to Hopkins. Monroe, despite many people advising her not to, sued for libel and her lawyers argued that the tweets would cause lasting damage to her reputation. Jack Monroe herself has an interesting story: she first came into the public eye with her blog ‘A Girl Called Jack’ in which she shared recipes that she had created as a single mother looking after a child, on a very tight budget. She went on to become a columnist for The Guardian and The Huffington Post and to write several books. Thus for some people the judgment also has connotations of a David vs Goliath battle, in which an anti-austerity, left-leaning individual has triumphed over an influential columnist who is, in the main, a supporter of right-wing establishment policies.
Whatever the political or social narrative, it is clear that this case will help to define the law of libel in the context of Twitter. People will need to be more aware of issues of defamation and of courting controversy through accusations and insults.
Incidentally, the case took almost two years and according to Monroe was especially harrowing as she had to document and re-read all hate mails she received — enough to fill six ring binders! Such is the power and vitriolic nature of Twitter.