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March 16, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:07am

Columnist Julie Burchill pays Novara’s Ash Sarkar substantial damages over defamatory Islamophobic tweets

By Charlotte Tobitt

Sunday Telegraph columnist Julie Burchill has agreed to pay substantial damages to Novara Media journalist Ash Sarkar after making defamatory allegations on Twitter that played into Islamophobic tropes.

Burchill’s false claims that she was an Islamist and a hypocrite have already lost her a book deal after her publisher said she had “crossed a line with regard to race and religion”.

Sarkar (pictured) said: “We should expect a writer at a national newspaper to uphold a basic commitment to honesty. But Burchill subjected me to days of relentless harassment and abuse (including making the absurd and false claim that I worship a paedophile) all because I’m Muslim.

“We should not accept women of colour being hounded out of public life simply for expressing themselves. This outcome is a victory for anyone who believes that people shouldn’t have to face abuse, harassment or smears just because they are part of a minority community.”

The Twitter dispute began on 13 December and surround a Spectator piece written by Rod Liddle in 2012 in which he said the only thing that stopped him from being a teacher was “I could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids”.

Amid a flurry of responses to the piece, Sarkar tweeted: “Saw these screenshots pop up on TL, and thought they must be a parody. I checked and it turns out that yes, Rod Liddle really did write an article 8 years ago saying that he didn’t become a teacher because he ‘could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids’.”

Referring to Prophet Muhammad and his wife, Aisha, Burchill responded: “But Ash … I don’t WORSHIP a paedophile. If Aisha was 9, YOU do. Lecturer, lecture thyself!”

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Burchill then posted on her Facebook page encouraging others to “wade in on Twitter” against “the Islamists” and then the next day asked them to send messages to “the nonces” on Twitter.

Sarkar brought defamation complaints about the Twitter and Facebook statements plus the innuendo allegation that she was a hypocrite.

[Read more: Owen Jones talks about online abuse of journalists and living with ‘constant threat of far-right violence’]

In her claim, she said the “nub of this case is a national newspaper columnist using her platform to make unprovoked allegations against an Asian Muslim woman that she is an Islamist who worships a paedophile [and] thereby combined two of the most damaging tropes of anti-Muslim hate: support for extreme fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism, and support for paedophilia and child sex exploitation/rape”.

On Tuesday morning Burchill published an apology on her Twitter and Facebook pages which said: “Although it was not my intention, I accept that my statements were defamatory of Ms Sarkar and caused her very substantial distress.

“I wish to make clear on the record that I do not believe, have never believed and never intended to make any allegation that Ms Sarkar is a promoter, supporter and/or sympathiser of Islamists or fundamentalist terrorism or to suggest that Ms Sarkar condones paedophilia in any way. I also now understand that it is blasphemy for a Muslim to worship Prophet Muhammad and I had no basis for stating that Ms Sarkar does so.”

Sarkar also brought a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act seeking an undertaking or injunction to stop Burchill from tweeting about her after she continued to tweet disparaging remarks about her for weeks after 13 December.

The posts included: “Drinks on me, @AyoCaesar, apparently you *fuck like a champion* – cant wait” and “Nevertheless, I wouldn’t mind *tashing on* with her – gonna ask her out for a *kebab* when I get my *winnings*!”

Burchill also liked abusive, threatening and Islamophobic tweets that were sent as a result, including one that read: “She needs to kill herself for shame for all that sex outside marriage.” Another speculated whether Sarkar had been the victim of female genital mutilation.

In her claim, Sarkar said these “repeated sexual and degrading comments” played out for Burchill’s audience “carried a persistent threatening undertone”.

She added that Burchill should have known she was encouraging her followers to “wade in” by weaponising her religion and race and linking it to her appearance and sex life.

Sarkar “had expressed no opinion about Islam [and] had commented on a controversial article by another national newspaper columnist which had nothing to do with Islam yet [Burchill] chose to use [Sarkar’s] heritage to attack an Asian Muslim woman”.

In her apology, Burchill accepted she was wrong to have continued tweeting about Sarkar, admitted some of her posts included “racist and misogynist comments”, that she should not have liked “callous and degrading” posts about Sarkar, and that she does not condone the “abhorrent” abusive messages sent to Sarkar from others.

“I did not know when I published my posts that Ms Sarkar had previously received death threats and other violent threats and abuse,” she said.

[Read more: Boris Johnson says ‘cowardly’ abuse of journalists must end as Govt publishes action plan]

In her apology, Burchill also said: “I deeply regret having reacted in the way I did. I accept that I should have behaved better. On reflection, I accept that I misjudged the situation, and made statements that simply are not true, which I now want to put right. I also wish to make clear that I accept that Ms Sarkar did not call for my publisher to break ties with me and bears no responsibility for this.

“I unreservedly and unconditionally apologise for the hurtful and unacceptable statements I made to and about Ms Sarkar, particularly those concerning her religion and Prophet Muhammad.  I have undertaken not to repeat the allegations or any similar allegations about her, undertaken not to engage in any course of conduct amounting to harassment of Ms Sarkar, and undertaken not to contact her directly other than for legal reasons.”

Burchill agreed to pay substantial damages for the distress caused and Sarkar’s legal costs.

Sarkar’s solicitor Zillur Rahman, of Rahman Lowe Solicitors, said the case “really does highlight the dangers of people thinking that the law does not apply to them on social media – the costs could be severe.

“It shows that words have consequences. We nevertheless welcome Julie’s approach in making a prompt concession of the claim, and her fulsome apology which starts to make amends for the harm done.”

Picture: Rahman Lowe Solicitors

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