zoom-in brief | 31 March 2017

31 March 2017

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In this week’s zoom-in brief, film star Emma Watson instructs lawyers over stolen photographs; we report on the perils of posting on social media after newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins faces huge libel damages and costs; and Irish MP Gerry Adams commences libel proceedings against the BBC in Dublin over the claim that he approved the murder of Denis Donaldson, a former IRA member and Sinn Féin administrator, after it emerged that he had been an MI5 agent.

PRIVACY: Emma Watson to sue over stolen photographs

Beauty and the Beast star Emma Watson is taking legal action after private photographs of her were stolen and said to have been posted online. Her representatives have said that the photographs are not nudes, but rather photographs from a fitting with a stylist of Ms Watson trying on clothes. Nonetheless those are clearly circumstances in which the former Harry Potter actress would seem highly likely to have a reasonable expectation of privacy; and, therefore, she may well be able to bring an action for misuse of private information against anyone responsible in this country.
This is not the first time famous actresses have suffered leaks of private photographs. In the Spring 2017 edition of zoom-in we reported that hacker Edward Majerczyk was jailed for nine months for stealing nude photographs of 30 celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence.

Watson herself previously received threats that nude photographs of her would be leaked online, apparently in response to her 2014 UN speech about gender equality. In response Ms Watson said: ‘I knew it was a hoax, I knew the pictures didn’t exist…. The minute I stepped up and talked about women’s rights I was immediately threatened…’

Ms Watson’s publicist has confirmed that in this current case lawyers have been instructed.
 

DEFAMATION: Jack Monroe vs Katie Hopkins Twitter Libel

As has been widely reported, columnist Katie Hopkins has been ordered to pay Jack Monroe £24,000 in damages over two Tweets. The Tweets, the court found, meant that Monroe condoned and approved of vandalising war memorials commemorating those who fought for freedom.

Hopkins did not seek to defend the Tweets as true. In relation to the first Tweet she had mixed up Monroe and another journalist, Laurie Penny. Rather the argument centred on whether the Tweets had caused “serious harm” to Monroe’s reputation, with the court finding that they did.

[Note that both the Spring 2016 and Spring 2017 editions of zoom-in have reported previously on recent cases interpreting the ‘serious harm’ threshold for defamation claims brought in by section by section 1 Defamation Act 2013 – see the relevant sections of this website.]

Hopkins will also have to pay a substantial sum in costs – an initial payment on account of £107,000 was ordered by the court. Hopkins had sought to appeal the judgment, but the trial judge has refused permission to appeal. The judge found that the application for permission was made too late, and that in any event Hopkins’ grounds of appeal had no real prospect of success.
This is not the first libel case which has come from Twitter. In 2013 Lord McAlpine sued Sally Bercow over a Tweet which said: ‘Why is Lord McAlpine trending. *innocent face*’ after McAlpine was wrongly linked to child sex abuse claims. The court found the Tweet to be defamatory of Lord McAlpine, meaning that he was a paedophile guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care. Bercow settled the case for an undisclosed sum.

Both cases show that on social media we are all publishers, and are subject to libel laws just like broadcasters and newspaper publishers. In particular those with a large number of followers risk causing serious harm to someone’s reputation if they Tweet something defamatory about them. Those with company social media accounts should be careful about who can Tweet and what they are permitted to say. Even if Tweets are not libellous they may be embarrassing for a company. Recently McDonalds said its account had been ‘hacked’ after its Twitter account posted a Tweet about President Donald Trump which read: ‘@RealDonaldTrump You are actually a disgusting excuse of a President and we would love to have @BarackObama back, also you have tiny hands.’ The Tweet was subsequently deleted.

DEFAMATION: Gerry Adams to sue BBC

Sinn Féin leader and Irish MP Gerry Adams is to sue the BBC for defamation in the High Court in Dublin. Adams is bringing the claim in relation to an edition of the BBC’s Spotlight programme, broadcast in September last year. In it, an unidentified man claimed that Adams approved the murder of Denis Donaldson. Donaldson was a former IRA member and Sinn Féin administrator who was shot dead at his cottage in Donegal in 2006 after it emerged that he had been an MI5 agent.

In 2009 the Real IRA claimed responsibility for the murder, but no one has ever been charged in relation to it. The unnamed man who made the allegations said that he was an informer who had been in both the IRA and Sinn Féin.

The BBC said that they disguised his identity for his safety. Adams has strongly denied the allegations. Adams has been leader of Sinn Féin since 1983, but has always denied that he was ever a member of the IRA. zoom-in will report further as the case proceeds.