In Riley v Sivier  EWHC 2891 (KB) TV presenter Rachel Riley succeeded in her libel claim against blogger Michael Sivier in a judgment handed down on 16 November 2022 by Mrs Justice Steyn. Dismissing the Defendant’s public interest defence, Mrs Justice Steyn awarded Rachel Riley £50,000 in damages and granted an injunction requiring Michael Sivier to remove the article and refrain from repeating it or words to similar effect again.
The claim concerned an article which Michael Sivier continued to publish on his “Vox Political” website headlined “Serial abuser Rachel Riley to receive ‘extra protection’ – on grounds that she is receiving abuse” (“the Article”).
The Article referred to an online debate on Twitter, about antisemitism in the Labour Party, in which Rachel Riley participated. In the course of that Twitter exchange, Rachel Riley had exchanged messages with an individual who later identified themselves as 16 years old.
Mr Justice Nicklin had previously found that the words complained of in the Article bore the defamatory meaning that:
- the Claimant has engaged upon, supported and encouraged a campaign of online abuse and harassment of a 16 year old girl, conduct which has also incited her followers to make death threats towards her (a statement of fact).
- By doing so, the Claimant is a serial abuser and has acted hypocritically, recklessly and irresponsibly, and obscenely (an expression of opinion).
Michael Sivier’s truth and honest opinion defences had been struck out by an earlier judgment of Mrs Justice Collins Rice in January 2021 (Riley v Sivier  EWHC 79 (QB)). The public interest defence under section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013 had also been struck out but Michael Sivier’s appeal against that part of the decision was allowed by the Court of Appeal ( 4 WLR 84).
As a result, the only defence to be considered at trial was “public interest”. Consequently, the issues that fell to be determined at trial were:
- whether the Article had caused or was likely to cause serious harm to Rachel Riley’s reputation within the meaning of section 1 of the Defamation Act and, if so,
- whether Michael Sivier had established a public interest defence to the claim pursuant to section 4 of the Defamation Act.
Finding for Rachel Riley, Mrs Justice Steyn found Rachel Riley succeeded in demonstrating that the statement complained of caused serious harm to her reputation, and Michael Sivier failed to make out the public interest defence under section 4.
Mrs Justice Steyn based her conclusion that serious harm was made out on a combination of: (i) the grave nature of the libel; (ii) the extent of publication (following her factual finding that about 50,000 people read the Article); (iii) Rachel Riley’s role as a well-known television presenter which meant that the libel was likely to have spread; and (iv) the inherent probability that the reputational harm caused by the Article was serious.
As to Michael Sivier’s public interest defence, Mrs Justice Steyn held that he had published on a matter of public interest and had a belief that publishing the Article was in the public interest. However, his belief was found to be unreasonable.
Not only was Michael Sivier’s failure to conduct enquiries and checks as were reasonably required in the circumstances sufficient to render his belief unreasonable, but the belief itself was “manifestly unreasonable” even leaving aside the flaws in the process. Despite the summary dismissal of his truth defence, Michael Sivier maintained that his allegations were true, and in any event that it was reasonable for him to believe them to be true. Mrs Justice Steyn had “no hesitation in agreeing with Collins Rice J’s conclusion that the statement complained of was not only untrue, it was not even arguably true” and concluded that, crucially, Michael Sivier had “no reasonable grounds to believe that his intended meaning, or the single meaning which his words obviously conveyed, was true” .
It followed that the defendant’s public interest defence failed and the claim succeeded.
Mrs Justice Steyn further held that Rachel Riley had an “irresistible” case for an injunction requiring the defendant to remove the Article and not to repeat it or words to similar effect again, given Michael Sivier had not taken down the Article, retracted any of the allegations, or apologised for it .
This judgment provides useful guidance on the parameters of admissible evidence of pre-existing bad reputation. Mrs Justice Steyn emphasised that:
“only evidence of general bad reputation, confined to the sector of the claimant’s character relevant to the libel, is admissible; evidence of particular acts (or alleged acts) of misconduct on the part of the Claimant tending to show her character and disposition is inadmissible” .
In this case, Michael Sivier had sought to argue that Rachel Riley has a reputation for being “highly controversial and offensive”, in support of which he put forward seven specific examples of her conduct or statements. Mrs Justice Steyn found that, even if it were established that Rachel Riley has a reputation for being highly controversial and offensive, this would not show that she has a bad reputation for harassing and abusing children (the relevant sector). In addition, it is not legitimate to plead specific acts of misconduct. For these reasons, Mrs Justice Steyn found this evidence to be inadmissible.
Radha Bhatt and Rosalind Comyn are members of the Matrix Chambers media and information practice group.
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