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Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster is suing TV’s Dr Christian Jessen over a Tweet of his about an unsubstantiated rumour that Foster was having an affair. Dr Jessen, who has 311,000 Twitter followers, posted the Tweet on 23 December 2019.

Foster told the High Court in Belfast that the Tweet was ‘humiliating’, and that it came at a particularly stressful time during talks over power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Foster said she spoke to her husband and two oldest children, then aged 17 and 19, and her elderly mother, and took the decision to take legal action. Foster also told the court she finds it very distressing when people call her homophobic, saying that she has a traditional, church-based view of marriage, but is not a homophobe.

Dr Jessen, best known for appearing on Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies, was said to have responded to a Tweet by Foster’s solicitor putting him on notice about the Tweet with just “lol”. He later responded to an email from Foster’s solicitor and deleted the Tweet on 7 January. Whilst it was live, the Tweet was retweeted over 500 times and prompted a discussion thread between Twitter users which was described as ‘unpleasant’. Foster’s lawyers also told the court that there was a ‘further aggravating Tweet’ on 26 December. The court was told that Dr Jessen has failed to respond to correspondence since, despite having been served with the papers; and he has not served a defence. Although the Tweet had been removed, there was ‘no acknowledgement of wrongdoing’. The Judge reserved judgment, saying he would give a written decision as soon as possible.

Libel law in Northern Ireland differs from that in England & Wales. The Defamation Act 2013 has no application there. So, the law is very similar to the legal position in England & Wales pre-2014. Northern Irish legislators are considering whether to bring in similar changes to the law but have not yet done so. Broadcasters operating across the UK should be aware of the legal differences that apply. In particular, there is no ‘serious harm’ threshold in Northern Ireland, and cases can still be heard by juries, although Foster’s case was dealt with by a judge alone.