Celebrities Drop Libel Action Two Months After Media Report They Had Won “First Round”

From the Evening Standard:

TV stars Rachel Riley and Tracy-Ann Oberman have dropped a High Court libel claim against a barrister over a Twitter post and agreed to pay some of her legal costs… Jane Heybroek was sued after she retweeted a link to a blog in January last year.

…The law firm representing Countdown star Ms Riley and actress Ms Oberman said in a statement: “Tracy Ann Oberman and Rachel Riley chose not to proceed further after the Judge had determined that the opinion expressed was capable of being defamatory, in circumstances where Jayne Heybroek claimed that she had promptly deleted her Tweet.

“Their libel insurers did not see any advantage in pursuing a case over the liability of a retweet that was deleted so quickly and therefore paid a very modest sum.

“Regrettably the defamatory tweeter lives in South America and has no visible assets. There are bigger fish to fry, in the pursuit of those who choose to maintain a serious libel.”

Heybroek’s legal bill was apparently £65,000, so is unlikely to have been covered by the “very modest sum”.

The law firm was Patron Law, and Oberman and Riley were represented by Mark Lewis. Lewis had previously told the media that he was preparing “legal action against up to 70 individuals for tweets relating to [Oberman and Riley’s] campaign against antisemitism”, and with this context in mind some social media users inferred that Heybroek must have RTed anti-semitic content. However, the complaint was actually about Heybroek having RTed a link to a webpage that contained scathing and accusatory commentary about Oberman and Riley’s online interactions with a third party, including allegations about their intentions and the supposed consequences of their actions.

Heybroek, who is a Buddhist (“self-confessed”, as oddly described by Mail Online), denies any anti-semitic motivation, and such a claim was not part of the case. It is of course possible to criticise how someone is allegedly conducting a campaign against some social evil without therefore being in sympathy with that evil.

The judge’s determination “that the opinion expressed was capable of being defamatory” was reported in May under the headline “Rachel Riley and Tracy-Ann Oberman win first round of High Court libel battle”. This gave the misleading impression that their case had been shown to be self-evidently strong and was now proceeding towards near-certain victory. However, Heybroek was quoted as saying that she was “satisfied with the outcome of this hearing as it has removed some of the more hyperbolic contentions being made”, which is hardly consistent with such a headline. The “win” simply meant that that the hearing had found the case was not so trivial that it should be thrown out without a trial, but that was never a likely prospect. Legal Futures reported in more detail at the time, and the full ruling can be read here.

It is not clear from the statement quoted by the Evening Standard why the extent of “the liability of a retweet that was deleted so quickly” was not determined by the libel insurers earlier than now.

As it happens, I have seen Mark Lewis in person a couple of times. One occasion was in a pub called Penderel’s Oak in Holborn, London, on 16 May 2013, at a party organised by the Libel Reform Campaign to celebrate the passing of the Defamation Act 2013. The event marked the success of what they described as a four-year campaign “to reform the repressive, centuries-old libel laws”. Lewis had defended a cardiologist named Dr Peter Wilmshurst in a case brought by a US medical device company.

Lewis also represents now John Ware, as discussed here.

(Some links above H/T Tim at Zelo Street)

One Response

  1. “It is of course possible to criticise how someone is allegedly conducting a campaign against some social evil without therefore being in sympathy with that evil.”

    I wish someone would tell that to the people who support Black Lives Matter!

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