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High Court rules on the defamatory meaning of a series of tweets alleging anti-Semitism and fascism

Published:

Re: Miller v Turner [2021] EWHC 2135 (QB)

The High Court has given judgment in a preliminary issues libel trial in respect of several tweets and one webpage published by the Defendant between 18th October 2018 and 18th August 2019. One of the items included links to an ‘archive’ of online material. The items contained allegations of antisemitism, fascism and of making death threats.

The Court considered the meanings of these publications and the extent to which they were fact or opinion, ruling that ‘antisemitism’ and ‘facism’ were in context opinion.

Mrs Justice Collins Rice considered the principles of ‘ordinary and natural meaning’ set out in Koutsogiannis v Random House Group [2020] 4 WLR 25. She strived to “determine the single natural and ordinary meaning of the words complained of, which is the meaning that the hypothetical reasonable reader would understand the words bear”. The governing principle is reasonableness. The intention of the publisher is irrelevant; the test is objective, not subjective.

The Claimants contended that all of the content objected to amounts to allegations of fact and that that can be determined simply on a bare reading of the text. The Defendants argued that reference should be had to a range of contextual material, including embedded hyperlinks and the reading of threads and conversations of tweets as a whole, and that that supports their contention that a certain amount of the content of the individual items complained of should properly be regarded as opinion based on that material.

The judge then identified three main issues of approach to consider before reaching her judgment:

  • the relevance to meaning of contextual material beyond the words in the publications complained of (such as the authorship and other material sufficiently closely connected in time, content or otherwise that is likely to have been in the hypothetical reader’s view, or in their mind, at the time they read the words complained of);
  • the identification and elimination from meaning of possibly irrelevant material contained in the publications complained of; and
  • the interplay between determination of meaning and determination of fact/opinion (On the classification of allegations of neo-Nazism or anti-Semitism as either factual descriptions or expressions of opinion, the Court deemed this a matter of how the allegations in context would strike the ordinary reasonable reader. The Court identified an expression of opinion by the Defendant).

In determining meaning in a defamation claim, the Court made clear the focus ought to be on the nub of the matter. The claimant attempted to build on the position of Swan v Associated Newspapers Ltd [2020] EWHC 1312 (QB) to effectively edit out any reference to fascism on the ground of irrelevance. The Court deemed the redaction of references to fascism an artificial and unnecessary exercise.

HELD – The Court considered each item in turn, with the natural and ordinary meaning set out in the conclusions and Mrs Justice Collins Rice determining which aspects amounted to fact and which amounted to opinion, ruling that ‘antisemitism’ and ‘facism’ were in context opinion.

Catrin Evans QC was involved in this case.