Journalists and editors can learn two major lessons from Jack Monroe’s libel victory over Mail Online columnist Katie Hopkins.
- When you make a mistake (especially a potentially libellous one) act promptly to apologise and correct the error.
- The bar for the “serious harm” to reputation which needs to be proven for a libel claim to succeed under the Defamation Act 2013 is probably lower than we thought.
Monroe sued over two tweets sent by Hopkins.
The first, sent at 7.20pm on 18 May, 2015, said: “@MsJackMonroe scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals?”
This was prompted by Hopkins confusing Monroe with New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny who had tweeted that she did not have a problem with protestors spraying Fuck Tory Scum on a memorial to the women of World War Two.
Monroe immediately responded with the following tweets:
At 7.33pm: “I have NEVER ‘scrawled on a memorial’. Brother in RAF. Dad was a Para in the Falklands. You’re a piece of shit.”
7.36pm: “I’m asking you nicely please delete this lie Katie, and if I have to ask again it will be through by lawyer.”
8.14pm: “Dear @KTHopkins, plublic apology +£5k to migrant rescue & I won’t sue. It’ll be cheaper for you and v. satisfying for me.”
Hopkins then deleted the tweet and at 9.47pm wrote the second message which was the subject of the libel action:
“Can somone explain to me – in 10 words or less – the difference between irritant @Penny Red and social anthrax @Jack Monroe.”
I suspect if Hopkins had instead at this stage apologised and corrected the error to her then 570,000 followers the matter would have gone no further. She would have corrected the misleading impression, thus cancelling out the serious harm caused to Monroe’s reputation.
Hopkins did not get around to producing a correction until 2 June, after solicitors’ letters had beeen exchanged, and then only in limited terms when she wrote: “@MsJackMonroe I was confused about identity. I got it wrong.”
The case got as far as trial because both sides’ solicitors thought they could win on the issue of serious harm and took their cases on a no win, no fee basis.
Mr Justice Warby ruled that he was convinced “the tweets complained of have a tendency to cause harm to this claimant’s reputation in the eyes of third parties, of a kind that would be serious for her”.
So Monroe did not have to prove actual damage (such as financial loss or psychological harm) it was enough that she believed the harm to her reputation was severe.
He added that “that there was some abuse resulting from the tweets complained of, and reflecting harm to reputation”.
The damages award was £16,000 for the first tweet and £8,000 for the second. Costs are yet to be assessed in full, but Hopkins has been ordered to pay £107,000 to Monroe’s lawers for starters.
The judge said these awards were higher than they would have been had damages been assessed at the time of publication.
I suspect if the second Hopkins tweet had instead been a retraction and apology no lawyer would have risked taking the case against her on a no win, no fee basis the risk of being sued would have been negligible.
As it is, though the serious harm to Jack Monroe is debateable (hence the fact this case got as far as trial).
Hopkins may well have been motivated by a genuine desire to preserve Twitter as a forum for no-holds barred debate – but she deserved to lose for that second gratuitous tweet and for her pig-headed reluctance to set the record straight when she got her facts wrong.