Katie Hopkins – A New Twibel Tariff?
@MsJackMonroe scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals?
Katie Hopkins directed this tweet at food writer and Guardian columnist, Jack Monroe, in 2015. After two years of litigation, the high court has ruled that Hopkins had defamed Monroe – and awarded damages at £24,000. Legal costs, which Hopkins will mostly be covering, are at the time of writing still to be decided, but these too are likely to be hefty.
Shortly after the decision was published, it was said by some that the case has set a tariff for Twitter libel claims (unofficially known … by some … as ‘twibel’ claims), which would inevitably encourage more of the same.
Should we all be concerned that critical tweets will automatically result a £24,000 fine?
A brief history: Twibel damages in England and Wales
A number of cases have assessed damages for libellous tweets in the past, including:
- Cardiff High Court ordered a member of the Caerphilly council to pay £3,000 in damages after claiming a rival had been removed from a polling station by police.
- Sally Bercow on Lord McAlpine in 2012: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending?”. This was written after a Newsnight programme associating a conservative politician with child sex abuse. The matter settled for an undisclosed sum reported by various sources (including the Mail and Independent) to be in the region of £15,000.
- In the same year Lalit Modi, then the chairman of Indian Premier League Cricket, tweeted “Chris Cairns removed from the IPL auction list due to his past record in match fixing. This was done by the Governing Council today”. The subject of his tweet, a well known New Zealand all-rounder, was awarded £90,000 in damages (this included an uplift of £15,000 for the bad behaviour of Modi’s representation).
There is no clear pattern to these awards. Katie Hopkins’ award sits towards the upper end of the scale to date.
How do we get to these figures?
Courts will take into account a number of factors when formulating their damages awards. These include: the scope of the tweet’s publication, the number of followers an account has (in Modi’s case this was held to be people with an interest in cricket), the need to compensate the victim rather than punish the libeller, whether any offer of amends has been made, and the seriousness of the abusive tweet.
On that last point, it is important to remember that a tweet will not become twibel without it causing or being likely to cause ‘serious harm to the reputation of the claimant’.
Given the number of variables a court has to take into consideration, it is extremely unlikely that a tariff has been set for twibel. A normal private individual, a company specialising in refuse disposal: they will rarely reach the same level of public dissemination as Katie Hopkins. Unfortunately no rule can be formulated as to what the likely pay-out for cases like these will be. The good news is that it will not be an automatic £24,000 fine.
With careful monitoring of your Twitter publications, and a sensible press clearance process, proceedings for defamation can easily be avoided.
Please feel free to contact our media & IP expert, Chris Haywood, if you have any questions about your publications, or what the Hopkins judgment is likely to mean for you or your business.