December 12, 2022
In January 2019, Michael Sivier, a political journalist, published an article about Rachel Riley, the well-known television presenter, under the heading “Serial abuser Rachel Riley to receive ‘extra protection’ – on grounds that she is receiving abuse”. The Article referred to statements Ms Riley had reportedly made in or via the national media about online abuse of which she had been the victim. It made several allegations about Ms Riley’s own online behaviour, including a suggestion that she herself was a “serial abuser”, and assertions about her conduct towards, and “harassment” of, a teenage girl called Rose who was said to have received death threats and abusive tweets as a result of a Twitter “debate” on antisemitism and the Labour party involving Ms Riley and others. Mr Sivier told readers that evidence in support of what he was telling them was to be found in two external articles, to which hyperlinks were provided.
Ms Riley sued for libel. At a trial of preliminary issues Nicklin J determined that the single meaning of the Article was that:
- Ms Riley had engaged upon, supported and encouraged a campaign of online abuse and harassment of a 16-year-old girl, conduct which had also incited her followers to make death threats towards her;
- by so doing, Ms Riley was a serial abuser and had acted: (a) hypocritically: by complaining about being the victim of online abuse and death threats herself whilst at the same time committing serial abuse of someone who has in consequence herself now been subjected to death threats (but someone who, unlike Ms Riley, could not afford additional security protection); (b) recklessly and irresponsibly: by provoking her followers to subject the 16-year-old to further abuse and harassment, including death threats; and (c) obscenely.
Nicklin J also held that meaning (i) was a statement of fact, whereas meaning (ii) was an expression of opinion, and the meaning as a whole was defamatory at common law.
In the Defence, Mr Sivier relied on truth, honest opinion, and publication on matter of public interest under ss 2, 3 and 4 of the Defamation Act 2013 respectively. Ms Riley’s application to strike out all those defences was granted by Collins Rice J. The Court of Appeal subsequently overturned the decision to strike out the public interest defence.
Mrs Justice Steyn DBE held that the Article had indeed caused serious harm to Ms Riley’s reputation. In Steyn J’s view, the libel was grave. Further, about 50,000 people had read the Article online. As Nicklin J observed in Riley v Murray  EWHC 3437 (QB), publication (in that case of a tweet) “to between 10,000 and 15,000 people” was “of an equivalent scale to the likely readership of the print edition of a local regional newspaper”. The extent of publication in this case was significantly higher. The nature of the accusation, taken together with the Ms Riley’s role as a well-known television presenter, meant that the libel was likely to have spread, due to the “grapevine effect”, to many more people beyond those who read the Article (Barron v Vines  EWHC 1226 (QB)). It was therefore inherently probable that the harm to Ms Riley’s reputation caused by the Article was serious.
As for Mr Sivier’s public interest defence, it was not in dispute that the Article was, or was part of, a publication on the following matters of public interest:
- online bullying and harassment including death threats;
- the power of an adult celebrity compared to the relative powerlessness of a vulnerable child suffering anxiety;
- mental health;
- antisemitism; and
- the public conduct of Ms Riley, a prominent public figure and, in particular statements she had made or caused to be made publicly: (a) in national print and broadcast media; and (b) on Twitter.
Steyn J found that Mr Sivier believed publication of the Article to be in the public interest because it was published as a counter to an article published in The Guardian a couple of hours before. Although Mr Sivier was motivated by his own political allegiance to publish the Article, it was clear that he viewed promoting those political interests as in the public interest.
However, Steyn J also found that Mr Sivier’s belief was “wholly unreasonable”. She did not accept his evidence that he had spent as much as 24 hours reviewing underlying material or reading and analysing the 243 relevant tweets because the evidence showed that at the time he said he had undertaken such research and analysis he had not in fact been intending to write an article on the subject. Further, the Article made no reference to the underlying material he said he had researched and he had no record of this research. Further, Mr Sivier said he had gathered material to prove that the Article was true, but that was done after publication of the Article in response to Ms Riley’s claim. Finally, he did not make any enquiries of any of the individuals involved before publishing the Article, nor did he give Ms Riley any opportunity to comment before publication because he believed that she would not comment. Further, he said that he “did not want to encourage a further tirade of abuse to be hurled at Rose”.
In Steyn J’s view, it was not reasonable for Mr Sivier to assume that Ms Riley would not comment rather than providing her with an opportunity to do so. Steyn J said that Mr Sivier’s reasoning suggested that, in fact, he believed that Ms Riley would have responded to the allegations, but he was keen to publish them without giving her the chance to rebut them.
Accordingly, Steyn J concluded that Mr Sivier had failed to conduct such inquiries and checks as it was reasonable to expect of him in all the circumstances and, consequently, his belief that publication of the statement complained of was in the public interest was not reasonable. Steyn J added that, on the facts, Mr Sivier had no reasonable grounds for making the factual allegations in the Article. They misrepresented the evidential picture and the Article was wholly unbalanced, she said. The public interest defence therefore failed.
Steyn J granted an injunction to restrain Mr Sivier from further publishing the words complained of or any similar words defamatory of Ms Riley. He had not, by the time of delivery of the judgment taken down the Article, retracted any of the allegations or apologised for it. Therefore, Ms Riley had “an irresistible case for an injunction”.
Finally, Steyn J awarded Ms Riley £50,000 in damages, as: (i) the allegations Mr Sivier had made were serious, at Chase level 1, against a public figure; (ii) the extent of publication was substantial; and (iii) Mr Sivier had continued to publish the Article with no retraction, amendment or apology. Moreover, the fact that he had continued to maintain the truth of his untrue allegations even after the summary dismissal of his defence of truth had been upheld by the Court of Appeal, was an aggravating factor, as was his cross-examination of Ms Riley on those matters. His pleading of matters alleged to show Ms Riley’s bad reputation was also misconceived. (Rachel Riley v Mike Sivier  EWHC 2891 (KB) (16 November 2022) — to read the judgment in full, click here).