Dennis Rice vs Byline Media: The IMPRESS Arbitration in Context

From Press Gazette:

The arbitration arm of press regulator Impress has concluded its first complaint and ordered website Byline to pay £2,500 in libel damages to freelance journalist Dennis Rice.

Rice complained about two Tweets published by Byline Media (a website I previously wrote about here and here), the second of which associated Rice with”tabloid trolling”:

the panel found that “tabloid trolling” means it was alleged Rice was involved in “disruptive and upsetting” activity.

Rice said the tweets caused him “serious harm” as required under the Defamation Act, because they come up in Google searches and could deter prospective clients for his business. The panel agreed that tweet number two was not true and did cause serious harm to Rice’s reputation.

It found that £2,500 was reasonable compensation for Rice and directed that Byline Media shall not republish the information.

This is worth considering in more detail, making reference to the full arbitration document as posted to the IMPRESS website (image pdf here).

I take on this task despite the fact that the complainant reacts viciously and childishly to anyone who refers to pertinent information that is not to his liking – in my own experience, this has included several years of abusive taunts, gratuitous and intrusive references to members of my family, threats of a physical confrontation (of some concern given that he made a direct threat of a “bloody encounter” to someone else), and even vexatious police complaints (at least two – see below for more on this).

1. Tweet 1

Rice complained to IMPRESS about two Tweets and their juxtaposition. The first Tweet referred to the appearance of Rice’s name and details on a phone blagger’s list of contacts. That in itself of course is not evidence of wrongdoing or even of an association, but in itself his name on this list is a fact and as such the Tweet was “found not to have a defamatory tendency”.

2. The “Harassment and Malicious Falsehood” Claims

Rice also made allegations of “harassment and malicious falsehood”, which he withdrew following a directions hearing. Rice has a history of making extravagant allegations against Byline‘s Peter Jukes, going back to 2014 when Peter drew a distinction between being phone-hacked and finding your private life in a tabloid, and being phone-hacked for industrial espionage, as happened to Rice and two relatives. Rice pretended that this was an attack on his family, and that as such he would write about Peter’s family in response. Rice crowed that Peter was “wetting himself” at the prospect, which is hardly consistent with either journalistic professionalism or with being a victim of harassment.

Rice became particularly agitated when Peter indicated that Rice’s trolling of him would be included in his book about the phone hacking trials, Beyond Contempt – I discussed this here. Rice sent an email claiming that he had been assured by police that anyone who Tweeted about him in a way that he considered to be “abuse” would be issued with a harassment warning, and that anyone who “breached” such a warning would be criminally charged. Rice also filed a complaint against Peter (and me) in 2016, which he then boasted about on Twitter but which was then dropped due to his subsequent non-communication with police. This in itself is evidence that Rice’s interactions with police have been manipulative and entered into in bad faith.

The arbitration result thus relates solely to “tabloid trolling”.

3. “Tabloid Trolling”

Paragraph 23 of the arbitration award lists some examples of statements by Rice that might reasonably be considered trolling:

(a) an alleged personal attack by the Complainant on Express journalist Richard Peppiatt;

(b) a threat to report a Leveson witness, Mr Steve Nott to the police. He was apparently described as a “mentally ill imbecile” and a “delusional nut“;

(c) Mr Tim Fenton who received emails in 2014 from Mr Rice demanding immediate deletion of his posts and threatening a defamation claim;

(d) Mr James Dolman [sic – should be James Doleman] who had been falsely accused by the Complainant being reprimanded by a judge for his court reporting;

(e) Mr Dan Waddell a Byline journalist who was the subject of an email in January 2015 for replying to one of the Complainant’s Tweets;

(f) Mr Peter Jukes, CEO of the Publisher who was regularly criticised by the Complainant and a tabloid troll referred to as “nutter”, “thief”, “liar” guilty of fraud;

(g) Dr. Evan Harris described as a “gutless six form prefect

Some of this is insubstantial, but it is nonetheless unpleasant and the comments about Steven Nott are particularly nasty – there is still some stigma about having received treatment for a mental health problem, and those who make such a disclosure in the public interest deserve some respect for having done so, not to have it thrown back at them in mocking and contemptuous terms (1).

Rice’s explanation, as cited in the arbitration award document, is that he “could go through each and every one of the individuals cited by Byline as apparently being trolled by me and show that all the exchanges are in a response from me to something defamatory or abusive they have posted in the first instance about me”. So why didn’t he?

It should also be noted that Rice’s threshold for “abuse” when he’s on the receiving end of criticism is very low (2).

4. The Identity of Tabloid Troll

It is difficult to see on what basis someone can object to being associated with “Tabloid trolling” when they have published material under the name “Tabloid Troll”. The arbitration award document refers to evidence in Paragraph 30:

The Publisher also produces evidence that Mr Rice was the source of the “@tabloidtroll” account. It particularly he refers to a recent post “How to take down an internet troll” in which Mr Rice apparently admits having “fed a series of articles to this anonymised blog”.

This ought to have been “case closed”, but for some reason the arbitrator does not assess its significance either way.

The quote from Rice refers to a blog associated with the @tabloidtroll Twitter account. Items on the blog were published as “by tabloidtroll” – it is claimed that this was a collective name, but this was a late device that Rice adopted half-heartedly after harassing Tweets published as @tabloidtroll came to police attention. However, the posts made to the blog made no reference to having been passed to tabloidtroll by someone else, and even if there is some mysterious third person using this name (and there isn’t), the very fact of providing material to someone who refers to themselves as “Tabloid Troll” is “tabloid trolling” by self-definition. And that’s before we get onto the content of the blog,  which was vile and professionally discrediting. (3).

Rice continues to maintain that he was not tabloidtroll, and he has referred to Tweets published at a time when he had an alibi as proof that this person must be someone else. However, he does not seem to have been asked directly about this by the arbitrator. Had this been a full-on libel action in a court of law, Rice would have been obliged to make a denial under oath, after which several lines of evidence could have been considered. The most obvious starting point would have been the @tabloidtroll avatar, which for a while consisted of the lower half of a man in shorts an running shoes – there is strong reason to believe that this was a photo of Rice. There are also various photos and locations referenced in the @tabloidtroll Twitter account that he could have been asked about, as well as the evidence discussed here.

On his side, Rice could perhaps produce his friend Andrew Roberjot, who says that he has “met TT” and that it’s not Rice; however, the problem here though is that Robjerjot also said that a photo of Rice that the Press Gazette published online (since removed) was someone else – even though Rice later confirmed that it was indeed a photo of him. It thus appears that Roberjot – described by former News of the World Deputy Editor Neil Wallis as a “drinking buddy” – is unreliable as a witness.

5. The Basis for the Award

Despite only a very minimal assessment of the evidence presented in Paragraph 23, and none at all of Paragraph 30, the arbitration document goes on to assess damages, using the case of Jack Monroe vs Katie Hopkins as a guide. In that case, as is well known, Hopkins made false allegations against Monroe after confusing her with someone else; Hopkins never denied her error, but instead argued that the mistake was not so serious that Monroe was deserving of compensation. That case thus never had to consider a defence of truth, which may be why the arbitrator bafflingly overlooked it in this instance.

The document also refers to two statements, by a PR professional named Jonathan Hartley and and media trainer named Jonathan Chandler. Both state that they have commissioned work from Rice in the past, but that the Tweets’ reputational damage is so great that they are now unable to do so.

I do not dispute this is their genuine opinion (although they have simply provided statements rather than testimony under oath), but the reasonable basis for it can be challenged.

First, the Tweets may indeed be indexed on Google, but they would be very difficult to come across unless the exact wording were used.

Second, Rice has been widely identified with the name “Tabloid Troll” for years now, which means that a new Tweet that refers to “tabloid trolling” is barely significant. Rice has been named as Tabloid Troll by several public figures, most notably David Aaronovitch, Owen Jones, and Tom Watson MP, now the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party – and Hartley was aware of this as long ago as 2012.

5. Conclusion

On the basis of the above, it seems to me that Byline has a very reasonable basis for an appeal.

The above is also relevant because Rice’s allies have written derivative pieces based on the Press Gazette article, in which they crow about “fake news”, but fail to go into any detail. This may have been out of laziness, or out of a deliberate wish to promote a false impression.

***
Footnotes

(1) The threat to report Steven to police followed an online altercation, after which Rice claimed that he had received an anonymous threat against his family. He did the same thing to me a few weeks later – his “trophy” from this is a PIN issued by the police to me (without any investigation) instructing me not to mention him again on social media, but which made no mention of the anonymous threat. However, I ignored the PIN (the pseudo-formal and pseudo-legal nature of which I have critiqued in general here and here) and the matter was dropped by police very soon after. Obviously, I had not sent him any such message, nor would I have wanted anyone else to do so – that kind of thing is cowardly and self-debasing, as well as irrational. This has all been discussed by me in detail here.

(2) A recent example: in October, Rice sprang to the defence of his friend Nick Pisa after Pisa’s appearance in a documentary about the Amanda Knox trial prompted criticism on social media. Rice Tweeted at one critic that the Kercher family were opposed to the documentary, which prompted the reply that Pisa’s “journalism can be critiqued separate from knox and kercher. ure a mess”. Rice claimed that this was “abuse” and promptly set about Googling the woman’s background and involvement in a court case, which he then Tweeted. Clearly, Rice was affecting offence at a mild insult as an excuse to write gratuitously and personally about someone for the crime of expressing an opinion.

(3) I was the subject of one of these posts, which was compiled with the assistance of an accomplice. It was generally foul and abusive, and it also included a mock-up screenshot that purported to show that I use a dating site. That kind of gratuitous fakery ought to be of serious concern to other media professionals who work with Rice. I discuss the background here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *