Full case report

Zahir Monir v Steve Wood

Reference [2018] EWHC 3525 (QB)
Court Queen's Bench Division, Media and Communications List

Judge Nicklin J

Date of Judgment 19 Dec 2018


Summary

Libel – Social Media – Twitter – Meaning – Reference – Agency – Vicarious Liability – Serious Harm – Damages


Facts

C, a businessman and Labour activist from Rotherham, sued D, the former Chairman of the UKIP Bristol Branch, for a tweet published by the Branch’s Twitter account on 4 May 2015. John Langley, the Vice Chairman of Bristol UKIP branch, posted the Tweet shortly before the 2015 general election. Similar tweets were published by other unconnected accounts around the same time.

The Tweet did not identify C by name but included a photograph of him, another man, and the Member of Parliament for Rotherham. The caption of the Tweet stated “Sarah champion labour candidate for Rotherham stood with 2 suspended child grooming taxi drivers DO NOT VOTE LABOUR”. The allegation made against C was completely false.

C sued D for libel.


Issue

  1. What is the meaning of the Tweet?
  2. Did the Tweet refer, and was it understood to refer, to C?
  3. Is D responsible for publication of the Tweet on the following bases?
  • Direct participation/authorisation
  • Agency
  • Vicarious liability
  • Byrne v Dean ratification
  1. Did publication of the Tweet cause serious harm to C’s reputation?
  • Damages
  • Injunction
  • Summary of the Judgment

Held

  1. Meaning

The Tweet would be taken to mean that the two men in the photograph were involved in the sexual abuse of children.

  1. Reference

This was not a mass publication case where the Court is able to draw a sure inference as to publication, and C must demonstrate his case on publication by evidence. C successfully established on the facts that a number of people were able to identify him. The republications of the Tweet would likely have led to a significant but unquantifiable number of people identifying C from the photograph.

  1. Responsibility for the publication
  • Direct participation/authorisation

This basis fails on the facts. In order to be held as a primary publisher, a person must be shown to have had knowing involvement in the publication of the particular words. It was the Vice Chairman who posted the Tweet and D did not specifically authorise it.

  • Agency

D was liable. The publication of the Tweet was part of the essential function of the task delegated to the Vice Chairman: to post material on the campaigning social media platforms. The Vice Chairman posted in this capacity and acting within the scope of the job he had been delegated. There is no need for contract or payment. D retained effective control over the account practically as he could change the password at any time and by dint of his authority as Chairman.

  • Vicarious liability

After reviewing the authorities, the Judge determined that this issue did not need to be decided as D was liable for the Tweet on the basis of agency. The Judge stated that vicarious liability might be raised by C as a matter on appeal in the event that he was wrong in his conclusions as to agency.

  • Byrne v Dean ratification

D was liable. C complained about the Tweet to D in a telephone call on 8 May 2015. As such, D’s knowledge of the defamatory publication was sufficient to draw the inference that he had acquiesced in and thereby authorised its continued publication. Following the complaint about the Tweet by C, D knew the gist and substantive content of the Tweet, even though he had not looked at its particular wording. This information would have enabled him to understand that the Tweet was published on the Bristol UKIP Twitter account, the Tweet’s seriously defamatory nature, and the means to locate (and delete) it. D did not have a justification for ignoring or dismissing the complaint.

  1. Serious Harm

The meaning of the Tweet was a very seriously defamatory allegation of conduct that that is a serious criminal offence and as such draws the inference that the publication would cause serious harm to C. This was not rebutted on the facts. The Tweet was published or republished to at least ten identifiable individuals. There were an unquantifiable number of further publishees who would have also been able to identify C.

  1. Remedies
  • Damages

The appropriate award is £40,000.

The gravity of the defamatory allegation puts it towards the top end of seriousness and there is evidence of serious and significant reputational harm. However, the extent of publication, measured by the number of publishees who would have understood that the allegation was being targeted at C, was very limited. D is only liable for the consequences that flow from the publication of the Tweet, not the unconnected publications of similar allegations by others. D also refused to publicly apologise and withdraw the allegation, which had a significant effect on the award of damages. Had the libel been published in a national newspaper, an award of £250,000 or more could have easily been justified.

  • Injunction

An injunction is not necessary. There is no evidence of D threatening to republish the Tweet or anything similar.

  • Summary of judgment

Section 12 of the Defamation Act 2013 allows for an order to be made requiring the publication of a summary of the judgment. There is no method by which D could be ordered to publish a summary of the judgment that would provide a realistic prospect of it coming to the attention of a significant number of the original publishees. C is likely to secure vindication of his reputation through the publicity that the judgment is likely to receive through other channels.


Comment

This case provides an up-to-date analysis of many elements of a libel claim. It is also a relatively unusual example of a claim for a post on Twitter and examines the potential liability of those who set up social media accounts but then delegate others to send out publications on their behalf and for their benefit. Although the Judge did not decide liability on the basis of vicarious liability, his judgment gives insight into the potential development of that doctrine.


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Instructing Solicitors

Penningtons Manches LLP for Claimant; Humphreys & Co. Solicitors for Defendant.