The most high profile libel trial of the term begins on Monday 27 February 2017 before Mr Justice Warby and is listed for 2 days. The case of Jack Monroe v Katie Hopkins concerns a tweet by the defendant, MailOnline columnist, Katie Hopkins about the claimant, food writer Jack Monroe, sent on 18 May 2015.
No substantive defences are relied on but the defendant contends that the tweets were not defamatory and did not cause serious harm to the claimant’s reputation.
Shortly after the 2015 election, there was a demonstration in London. The words “Fuck Tory Scum” were sprayed on a war memorial in Whitehall. This act was widely publicised and led to considerable political debate, particularly on social media.
Laurie Penny, a columnist for the New Statesman with the Twitter handle @PennyRed, tweeted:
At 7.20pm on 18 May 2015 the defendant posted a tweet as follows (“the First Tweet”).
Shortly afterwards, the claimant replied with the following tweet
She then followed this up by tweeting
Shortly afterwards, and before 9.47pm, the First Tweet was deleted by the defendant who then posted a second tweet (which was not deleted) as follows (“the Second Tweet”)
The defendant did not apologise and, as a result, the claimant issued libel proceedings. The claimant is represented by William Bennett and Greg Callus, instructed by Seddons. The defendant is represented by Jonathan Price, instructed by Kingsley Napley.
The claimant alleges that the First Tweet bore the natural and ordinary meaning that
(1) The claimant had vandalised a war memorial and had thereby desecrated the memory of those who fought for her freedom and had committed a criminal act, alternatively
(2) The claimant condoned or approved of the criminal vandalisation of a war memorial and the consequent desecration of the memory of those who fought for her freedom
The defendant denies that the First Tweet bore these meanings. She argues that a reasonable reader of Twitter on 18 May 2015 would have realised that the First Tweet was a misdirected attempt to criticise Ms Penny for her comments about the painting of the slogan on the war memorial.
The claimant alleges that this bears the innuendo meaning that the claimant approved or condoned the criminal vandalisation and descretaion of the women’s war memorial in Whitehall during an anti-government
In relation to serious harm the claimant originally relied on the inherent seriousness of the allegations, the fact the tweets were published a very large number of people on the internet and the “vile and abusive comments” she later suffered.
In relation to publication, the First Tweet was only directly published to small number of individuals: because it was an “at reply” tweet it only published to those who followed both the claimant and the defendant. In view of the diametrically opposed views of the claimant and the defendant this is, unsurprisingly, a very small number – perhaps less than 200.
The First Tweet was, however, present on the defendant’s”home page” for over two hours and the defendant is likely to argue that it will have been seen by large numbers of people during that period. In addition, it will have been “retweeted” to the followers of other twitter users.
There is a factual dispute as to whether the claimant in fact suffered “vile and abusive comments” as a result of the tweets complained of.
In summary, the issues at trial are:
(1) Do the tweets bear a defamatory meaning at common law?
(2) If so, have the tweets caused or are they likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant?
On the first issue, evidence is not admissible. On the second issue, the relevant evidence is that of the claimant herself. The defendant will not be giving evidence.
The Courts have considered defamation on Twitter on a number of occasions. In Cairns v Modi ( EWHC 756 (QB)), the claimant recovered £90,000 damages in respect of a defamatory tweet published to 65 immediate publishees (see our case comment). In McAlpine v Bercow ( EWHC 1342 (QB)) it was held that a tweet sent by Sally Bercow bore the “natural and ordinary” defamatory meaning that Lord McAlpine “was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care“ (see our case comment).
However, this is the first case in which the impact of the “serious harm” test in section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013 will have to be considered in the context of publication on Twitter. There are a number of special features of such publication.
First, as in this case, publication can often be to a very small number of people compared to a traditional “mainstream media” case. The number of publishees may be difficult to ascertain. A claimant cannot rely on any “presumption of publication” and must (see Al Amoudi v. Brisard  EWHC 1062).
Second, in a case such as the present, the publishees may well be familiar with the views of the claimant and defendant and (insofar as they follow them on Twitter) may be sympathetic with those views. As a result, it could be argued that it is unlikely that much “actual damage” to reputation will have been caused: the claimant’s followers are unlikely to pay attention to the defendant’s views and the defendant’s followers are unlikely to have a high opinion of the claimant.
Third, there is the context of publication. Twitter is a fast moving and often aggressive forum where the restriction to 140 characters requires users to express themselves in striking terms. Very often, tweets can best be categorised as vulgar abuse” rather than statements of fact (cf McGrath & Anor v Dawkins  EWHC B3 (QB) ). Harm may, therefore, be more difficult to establish in comparison to a “serious media publication”.
The case has already attracted considerable publicity (see, for example, the articles in Press Gazette, Huffington Post, Guardian). The trial is likely to attract widespread media attention and comment next week.