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Vowel, Consonant, Vowel – The Conundrum Of Strike Out!

Reasons to choose Wilson Browne

Journalist’s defence struck out by Count Down star Rachel Riley

Rachel Riley, TV and Count Down star, has received the latest Judgment in her ongoing libel proceedings against political journalist Michael Sivier brought originally over an article published on his website.

Mr Sivier had filed defences of truth, honest opinion and publication in the public interest and Ms Riley applied to strike out those three defences, on the basis that it was not even an arguable point to say that she had engaged in the conduct that was set out and alleged in the article in the first place.

In a useful judicial exercise the Court has given some much needed guidance for the treatment of social media posts and although this case related to Twitter, we expect the application of the principles from this case to be applied across social media whatever the platform.

Striking out a Defence

Most cases in the Civil Courts have the option, at the beginning; of the Claimant applying to strike out the Defence if, simply put, the Defence is pointless and you can see that a lot of Court time, and legal costs, will be saved if that is indeed the case.  Different sorts of cases have different tests and in this case the Court had to look to see what was the minimum standard for a Defence in order to warrant going to trial.

The background of the case was that the Defendant had originally alleged that Ms Riley had engaged upon, supported and encouraged a campaign of online abuse and harassment which went on to incite her followers to partake in that including the making of death threats, that she was a serial abuser who had acted hypocritically, reckless and irresponsibly, obscenely and suggested that celebrities with a large following, such as Ms Riley, had a duty to prevent their followers abusing someone on (e.g.) Twitter.

The Judge rejected the suggestion that celebrities had a duty to prevent online abuse which will be well received by celebrities who do engage in robust conversations.  The Judge went on to consider that the allegations set out were defamatory and the defences of truth in respect of the statement of fact (that she had engaged upon, supported and encouraged that campaign) and of honest opinion for the other allegations – together with being published on the matter of public interest – should be sufficient to defeat the claim.

The Court spent most of its time looking at the defence of truth and this makes sense, because the alleged opinion would be based on that truth and if untrue then the opinion would fall away.  The Court went through, in some detail, the various Tweets and looked at whether the defence was properly set out, and considered the particular requirements for pleading this defence of truth.

What did the Judge say?

The Court decided that the details in the Defence were neither sufficient, or properly set out, and when they looked at the Twitter exchanges Ms Riley’s conduct decided that the defence had no real prospect of success in that there was little likelihood that the allegations that she had “engaged upon, supported and encouraged a campaign of online abuse and harassment” would not stand up.  The Court decided that the abuse that the 16 year old girl had received was not Ms Riley’s responsibility. It followed that the honest opinion defence fell to be struck out.  Finally it cannot be said that there is a public interest in publishing untrue allegations or unsustainable opinions without good cause.

There were some other aspects of the defence that will go forward but this case is worth taking note of because it reminds us all that we need to be careful what we publish online, in a blog, comment, post, article, etc.

Kevin Rogers

Posted:

Kevin Rogers

Partner

Kevin is a Partner in our Commercial Litigation Team, Chairman of our Board of Management and leads our Commercial Business Unit, with responsibility for the overall supervision of the Commercial Teams’ work. Having qualified as a Solicitor in 2001, he advises on complex commercial disputes…