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Top 10 Defamation Cases 2022: a selection – Suneet Sharma

New Years Resolutions 2022Inforrm reported on a large number of defamation cases from around the world in 2022.  Following my widely read posts on 2017,  2018,  20192020 and 2021 defamation cases, this is my personal selection of the most legally and factually interesting cases from England, Australia and Canada from the past year.

  1. Vardy v. Rooney [2022] EWHC 2017 (QB)

An interim hearing in this case featured at number five in my 2021 list.  We now have the final judgment in the “Wagatha Christie” case between Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney as number one in my 2022 list. The case was one of the most high-profile libel cases in recent years, concerning the alleged leaking of posts from Ms Rooney’s private Instagram account to the Sun by Ms Vardy, via her agent Ms Caroline Watt. The resulting post on social media regarding Ms Vardy’s involvement in the leaks by Ms Rooney, were the subject of the libel claim.

Ultimately the claim of libel against the defendant, Coleen Rooney, was dismissed due to the defence of truth being established. Notably, “the information disclosed was not deeply confidential, and it can fairly be described as trivial, but it does not need to be confidential or important to meet the sting of the libel.” [287]

In handing down judgment Mrs Justice Steyn considered that “Ms Vardy knew of and condoned this behaviour, actively engaging in it by directing Ms Watt to the Private Instagram Account, sending her screenshots of Ms Rooney’s posts, drawing attention to items of potential interest to the press, and answering additional queries raised by the press via Ms Watt” [285].

Concluding, “Ms Vardy’s part in disclosing information to The Sun was … unthinking rather than part of a considered and concerted business practice.” [41]

However, the Judge did draw attention to the claimant’s “degree of justified resentment at the exaggerated way in which her role has at times been presented during the litigation”. [41]

See our case comment on Inforrm. Expectedly the case drew substantial media coverage:

For further legal analysis readers may wish to review coverage by the Law Gazette and Carter-Ruck.  The trial has already been the subject of a West End play, a two part documentary on Discovery plus, and a two part drama on Channel 4 – with apparently more to come.

  1. Banks v Cadwalladr [2022] EWHC 1417 (QB)

A libel trial concerning a TED Talk: Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy, made by the defendant, Ms Cadwalladr at a 15 April 2019 TED Conference in Vancouver, Canada and a resulting tweet she made. Mr Banks was the largest donor to the leave campaign in the UK’s 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union.

The statement complained of in the TED Talk was as follows: “… I am not even going to get into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian Government.

In a tweet following the talk and receipt of a pre-action letter from the claimant, the defendant doubled down on the allegations: “Oh Arron. This is too tragic. Nigel Farage’s secret funder Arron Banks has sent me a pre-action letter this morning: he’s suing me over this TED talk. If you haven’t watched it please do. I say he lied about his contact with the Russian govt. Because he did.”

The primary issues at trial were whether the threshold of serious harm under s.1 Defamation Act 2013 was met by the statements and whether the defendant has established the defence of public interest pursuant to s.4 Defamation Act 2013. The defence of public interest succeeded only in part, with allegations of serious harm in relation to the tweet being rejected:

The claimant’s case on this issue is essentially dependent on drawing an inference of serious harm from the combination of the gravity of the imputation and the extent of publication. While I have been persuaded, on balance, to draw such an inference in relation to the TED Talk, in my judgment, the claimant has not established that the Tweet caused (or is likely to cause) serious harm to Mr Banks’s reputation. Accordingly, I dismiss the claim in respect of the Tweet on the grounds that the condition in s.1 of the 2013 Act is not met. [94]”

The public interest defence was made out only partially due to the NCA issuing a Joint Statement with the Electoral Commission on 29 April 2020 which caused the defence to fall away. The statement made it clear that the two organisations had investigated and the NCA concluded, with which the Electoral Commission agreed, that the was no evidence that Mr Banks had breached the law on funding of campaigns.

Accordingly judgment was handed down:

Ms Cadwalladr has succeeded in establishing a public interest defence in respect of the TED Talk from the original date of publication, 15 April 2019, until 29 April 2020. In relation to the Tweet, Mr Banks did not establish that the serious threshold was met and so the need for Ms Cadwalladr to establish a defence did not arise. However, if it had arisen, she would have succeeded in establishing a public interest defence from the original date of publication, 24 June 2019, until 29 April 2020.

I have concluded that there was a significant change of circumstances on 29 April 2020, and so Ms Cadwalladr failed to establish the public interest defence in respect of continuing publication of the TED Talk from that date. However, Mr Banks failed to establish that the serious harm condition was met in respect of publication of the TED Talk from 29 April 2020. In view of the conclusions I have reached, no question of awarding damages arises.” [415]

Inforrm reviewed the progression of the trial: Day 1, Day 2 and Day 5. Emma Linch also wrote a two part analysis of the case: Parts I and II. We also had a case comment from Anna Seal: A ground breaking result or a close call?

  1. Erica Lafferty & Ors v Alex Jones, Connecticut Superior Court, UWY-CV18-6046436-S 

In October a Connecticut jury awarded $965m compensatory damages to the families of Sandy Hook victims following statements made by Jones that the shootings were a hoax as part of a plot to seize American guns.

Jones’ claims caused harassment and death threats to be levelled at the families, causing severe psychological harm.

There are three ongoing lawsuits against Jones as a result of the statements he made and two of the three cases came to a head this year. In the second case in November a Connecticut judge ordered that Jones must pay $473m in punitive damages. A third case against Jones is pending in Texas.

  1. Google LLC v Defteros [2022] HCA 27

The High Court of Australia considered whether Google could be held liable for providing search results which linked to defamatory matter. Endorsing the “mere conduit” theory in relation to intermediary liability the court held on a five to two ruling that Google was a “mere facilitator”.

Susan Kiefel CJ and Gleeson J said Google was not instrumental in communicating the linked article, but merely assisted users to find certain information and to access it.  Gageler, Edelman and Steward JJ agreed with the result.

Gordon and Keane JJ dissented. Gordon stated: “Having taken action to obtain a commercial benefit by creating and operating a search engine that facilitates access to news articles, [Google] cannot deny that it is involved in the publication of those news articles.

Lexology and Greenberg Taurig have analysis.

  1. John C. Depp II v. Amber Laura Heard CL-2019-2911

The highly publicised defamation case between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp came to finally came before a jury in the Virginia Circuit Court of Fairfax County.

The case concerned three allegations of defamation brought by Mr Depp and one count of defamation brought by counterclaim by the defendant, Ms Heard.

The initial award of $5m punitive damages awarded by the jury in the case was reduced to the statutory cap on damages pursuant to the Virginia Code, $350,000. Compensatory damages was assessed an granted in favour of Mr Depp in the sum of $10m for all three counts of defamation and Ms Heard was granted compensatory damages in the sum of $2m for her single count.

In particular, Depp sought damages following an article written by Heard in the Washington Post which she stated she that “two years ago I became a public figure representing domestic abuse”- though not mentioning Mr Depp by name his lawyers claimed the words defamed him as sought $50m in damages.

The BBC has coverage as does Inforrm- from Alexandros Antoniou.

  1. Riley v Sivier [2022] EWHC 2891 (KB)

A libel trial of Countdown presenter Rachel Riley against blogger Mike Sivier, in which Riley was successful and awarded £50,000 and an injunction against Mr Sivier.

The case concerned an article on the defendants’ blog which label Riley as a “serial abuser”. The trial considered whether the claim met the threshold for serious harm and whether public interest defence was made out in relation to the claims- it was found to have not been. The allegations were found to be very serious against a public figure meriting the highest Chase level, one.

This is not the first time Ms Riley has pursued a defamation claim, the prior being another important defamation judgment: Riley v Murray [2021] EWHC 3437 (QB)

  1. Wright v McCormack [2022] EWHC 2068 (QB)

A libel claim arising from a series of tweets that the claimant, Dr Wright, was fraudulently claiming to be the inventor of Bitcoin. This case concerned tweets made by blogger and podcaster Mr McCormack.

Dr Wright was successful in the case receiving, £1 in damages on the account of him advancing a deliberately false case and false evidence.  In a judgment dealing with ancillary matters handed down on 21 December 2022 ([2022] EWHC 3343 (KB)) Chamberlain J refused to grant an injunction or accept undertakings on the basis that Dr Wright had deliberately presented a false case.  The defendant was awarded the costs of the proceedings on the indemnity basis.

  1. Barilaro v Google LLC [2022] FCA 650

Mr Barilaro was awarded $715,000 general and aggravated damages and interest over two videos uploaded to YouTube by comedian and political commentator Jordan Shanks.

Justice Rares, delivering judgment for the plaintiff, described the videos as racist hate speech and commented Google had tried to evade its responsibility as a publisher.   Kennedys law had a two part blog post analysing the decision.

  1. Herron v HarperCollins Publishers Australia Pty Ltd [2022] FCAFC 68

The overturning of a decision related to an account in a book of Scientology in Australia by ABC’s Steve Cannane. Doctor John Gill won his appeal after the court considered it impossible for the justification defence to be considered properly after evidence from dead experts was permitted from Royal Commission proceedings in the 1980’s.

Cannane’s qualified privilege defence was also rejected. The re-trial is listed for June 2023.  The Sydney Morning Herald had a report.

  1. Burston v Hanson [2022] FCA 1235

Former Senator Brian Burston succeeded in his defamation case against Senator Pauline Hanson and was awarded $250,000. Justice Robert Bromwich found that Burston had sexually harassed two female staff in his office however, found that Hanson had gone too far when characterising the conduct as “sexual abuse”. In another finding the Justice ruled that Burston was defamed by accusations that he had assaulted, Hanson’s chief of staff, James Ashby without provocation.

The Guardian had a report of the judgment.

Please add additional cases or analysis via the comments. I would like to thank readers for their contributions, reposting and reading of this series to date.

Suneet Sharma is a junior legal professional with a particular interest and experience in media, information and privacy law.  He is the editor of The Privacy Perspective blog.

2 Comments

  1. RichardR

    Very minor point, but isn’t Rachel Riley still the co-presenter of Countdown, not former as the article has it.

    • INFORRM

      Thank you – corrected!

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