A former chairman of a UK Independence Party branch has been ordered to pay £40,000 in damages to a man defamed on Twitter even though he did not write the offending tweet.
Ruling in Zahir Monir v Steve Wood, the Honourable Mr Justice Nicklin accepted that Steve Wood had not written or approved the tweet, made from the UKIP branch account and picturing a Labour election candidate alongside two men described as 'child grooming taxi drivers'. However he held that the tweet's author, John Langley, was 'quite clearly acting as the agent of Mr Wood'.
The judgment affirms that a web post seen by relatively few people can meet the 'serious harm' test established by the 2013 Defamation Act even though at least some viewers know immediately that it is untrue.
Zahir Monir, a Rotherham businessman and Labour activist, took action after his attention was drawn to the tweet, which the judge described as 'a very serious defamatory allegation'. It was published in the runup to the 2015 general election to @BristolUKIP's 547 followers, retweeted at least 17 times and 'liked' at least eight times. The court heard that Monir had identified Wood as the branch chairman and telephoned to complain, and later contacted the police.
However the judge ruled that Wood had not taken Monir's complaints seriously, quoting Wood as saying that, as a bailiff, challenges to his authority were as 'water off a duck's back'. According to the judgment, Wood's conviction that he had done nothing wrong 'together with his stubbornness and self confidence, has led him to have adopted an uncompromising approach to Mr Munir's claim.'
In particular Wood argued that Langley, originally named on the claim form, should be held responsible. The proceedings were served on Wood after it became apparent that there was no prospect of recovering damages from Langley, a self-styled 'maverick' who had a sideline as a pornographic video maker and actor under the name 'Johnny Rockard'.
In his witness statement, Wood had initially maintained 'I do not use Twitter', saying he would need to be taught or have it demonstrated. However the judge found that, 'the evidence satisfies me that Mr Wood was familiar with Twitter and, contrary to the impression given in his witness statement, he was perfectly capable of using (and did use) Twitter.'
On the serious harm test, the judge said that even though witnesses who had recognised Monir from the tweet knew that the allegation was false 'an unquantifiable number of further publishees' who saw it reproduced on WhatsApp groups might have been able to identify him.
On damages, the judge said that the gravity of the allegation 'puts it to the top end of seriousness', compounded by Wood's 'intransigence and his refusal publicly to apologise'. Had the libel been published in a national newspaper, £250,000 or more could have been justified, he said. The figure of £40,000 was proportionate to the limited scale of publication and the 'difficulties of causation'.
Monir's solicitor, Jeremy Clarke-Williams of commercial and private client firm Penningtons Manches, said the judgment provides Monir with 'the complete vindication he deserves'. He said that the judgment will have implications for every organisation delegating responsibility for social media accounts. 'If you are responsible for letting a maverick genie out of the bottle then you are likely to face the legal consequences – and in the era of fake news that presents a real risk.'
Julian Santos, instructed by Pennningtons Manches appeared for the claimant, David Hirst, instructed by Humphreys & Co, for the defendant.