Peter North, former UKIP parliamentary candidate and founder of the Brexit-supporting Leave Alliance, has been ordered to pay philosopher and academic AC Grayling £20,000 in libel damages after tweeting an allegation that Professor Grayling was in possession of child pornography.
Professor Grayling is an outspoken critic of Brexit. Mr North is an outspoken Brexiteer. On 10 May 2018 following an exchange of views about Brexit, Mr North tweeted the following words: “‘I’d bet good money that AC Grayling has a hard drive full of underage botty sex videos.” Mr North had approximately 7,900 followers at the time. The allegation remained on Mr North’s Twitter feed for six days.
On 18 May 2018 Professor Grayling’s solicitors sent a Letter of Claim to Mr North seeking an apology, an undertaking not to repeat, compensation and payment of legal costs. On 21 May 2018 Mr North acknowledged the letter and emailed the following response: “I don’t know if this will qualify as a satisfactory proposal but I strongly suggest your client goes and fucks himself.”
A claim was issued on 22 June 2018.
Whilst Mr North acknowledged service of the Claim, he failed to file a Defence. Judgment in default was granted by Master McCloud, without a hearing, on 2 November 2018. The Master directed a timetable for evidence, leading to this hearing to assess damages, and to deal with other remedies and costs.
Where a claim has not been defended, pursuant to Part 12.11(1) of the Civil Procedure Rules, the claimant is entitled to “such judgment as it appears to the court that the Claimant is entitled to on his statement of case.” Professor Grayling filed evidence in support of his claim. No evidence was filed by Mr North.
Professor Grayling’s barrister Richard Munden told the court: “Allegations of paedophilia, including of possessing and storing child pornography, are undoubtedly some of the most serious allegations that can be levelled at anyone in the modern age … The allegation is all the more damaging in respect of those who work with young people, and who regularly visit schools to talk to schoolchildren about their futures – as does Professor Grayling”
Delivering an ex tempore judgment, Richard Spearman QC (sitting as a deputy judge of the High Court), awarded £20,000 damages for what he considered to be a “particularly pernicious” libel. The Judge remarked, “In my view, that’s a figure which should provide vindication for [Professor Grayling]. It must be clearly stated that there is no truth in the allegation against him.” The judge added that “Mr North’s conduct was extraordinary from first to last. ..He certainly seems entirely unrepentant and has offered no apology.”
A permanent injunction was granted prohibiting Mr North from repeating the libel.
Finally, Mr North was ordered to pay Professor Grayling’s legal costs.
Fresh on the heels of Suttle v Walker  EWHC 396 QB, this is the latest decision an increasing body of caselaw on social media defamation. This case is particularly helpful for media law practitioners as it provides a benchmark on straightforward and tangible facts in a “twibel” case: an allegation of paedophilia in a single tweet to 8,000 followers. As practitioners will be all too aware, a malicious allegation of paedophilia on social media is frequently the weapon of choice where an individual wants to inflict as much reputational harm as possible. Whilst other factors will be relevant to an award of damages, the nature of the allegation and the number of followers are normally good starting points for assessing damages.
This decision should also serve as a further warning to users of Twitter (and social media generally) that ill-considered tweets/posts can prove very expensive. In addition to the £20,000 compensation payment, Mr North must pay Professor Grayling’s legal costs. Whilst the details of the claimant’s costs are not known in this case, even in an undefended libel claim costs can easily approach £50,000. With hindsight Mr North may come to consider his response to the Letter of Claim – seemingly a variant on Private Eye’s famous “Reply in Arkell v Pressdram“- as slightly misjudged.
This post originally appeared on the Brett Wilson Media Law Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks