Comments about TV stars Rachel Riley and Tracy-Ann Oberman made in an article retweeted by a London barrister were defamatory, the High Court has ruled in a preliminary hearing.
Jane Heybroek, a specialist immigration barrister practising from Goldsmith Chambers, is being sued for the contents of the article, rather than anything she said.
She maintains she is not liable for re-tweeting a tweet containing a hyperlink to the article, although the claim is based on her alleged publication of the article.
The Countdown presenter and actress were the subjects of the article, by blogger Shaun Lawson and published on Medium.com, headlined: “Beneath Contempt: How Tracy Ann Oberman and Rachel Riley harassed, dogpiled and slandered a 16-year-old child and her father.”
It concerned the claimants’ alleged behaviour towards a teenage Labour supporter on Twitter.
Mr Justice Jay noted that “both are Jewish and take active positions against the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK over recent years, which rise they attribute in the main to individuals and groups on the left wing of politics. Both use Twitter in order to speak out against this phenomenon”.
Ms Heybroek was described as “equally active on Twitter”, but “beyond being broadly supportive of Jeremy Corbyn it is pointed out on her behalf that there is no direct evidence of her political position”.
The judge found the words in the article complained of meant:
- The claimants have acted outrageously by subjecting a vulnerable 16-year-old girl to repeated harassment and abuse.
- The claimants’ actions have encouraged others leading to further harassment and abuse of the of the child and the child’s family, including the hacking of the child’s Twitter account, the tracking down of her family, people believing that the girl is anti-Semitic, and to death threats being made against her.
- There are grounds for the police conducting an investigation into the claimants’ conduct.
Jay J ruled that the first statement, and the first seven words of the second statement were opinion, rather than fact.
He continued: “The Lawson article is accusatory, vituperative and prescriptive. Seen in their context, these imputations [in the first two statements] are sufficiently serious and are expressed in such a way that the claimants’ reputation will have been lowered in the eyes of the likely readership.”
The third statement made “no substantive difference” in light of the other findings, but the judge said it was “borderline” and should be left for future determination.
Ms Heybroek, who has instructed solicitors Brett Wilson, is trying to crowdfund £65,000 to cover her legal costs for the preliminary hearings, saying she has already spent £30,000. At the time of writing, she has raised £35,000.
Describing herself as a “Buddhist barrister” who dedicates her life to “peacebuilding and social justice”, she said on CrowdJustice that although the article was re-tweeted by hundreds of other people, “for reasons best known to the claimants, I am the only person being sued for a retweet”.
Ms Heybroek said she was “satisfied with the outcome of this hearing as it has removed some of the more hyperbolic contentions being made”.
She added that the finding that some of the words were opinion was “potentially crucial” as it opened up the defence that an honest person could have held the opinion on the basis of facts existing at the time.