A judge rules an unfounded tweet by Dr Christian Jessen about an alleged extra-marital affair was “outrageous”.
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster has been awarded £125,000 in damages after a defamatory tweet by TV presenter Dr Christian Jessen.
Dr Jessen tweeted an unfounded claim that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader had been having an extra-marital affair on 23 December 2019.
The post remained online until Dr Jessen deleted it on 7 January 2020.
A judge at the High Court in Belfast said it was an “outrageous libel” which was “grossly defamatory”.
Later, in an interview with the BBC, Mrs Foster called for a change in the law to combat online abuse.
Mr Justice McAlinden said the tweet had attacked Mrs Foster’s “integrity at a most fundamental level” and involved the “trashing in a very public fashion” the relationship which was most important in her life.
He told the court the tweet had called into question her suitability to hold the office of first minister at a time when delicate negotiations were continuing on the re-establishment of the Stormont executive after three years of deadlock.
“To state that a woman married for 25-and-a-half years and a mother of three children, who is a committed Christian and who is recognised as such, and who has publicly made statements extolling the importance and sanctity of marriage… was an adulterer, a hypocrite and a homophobe is a most serious libel,” said the judge.
He ordered Dr Jessen, who is best known for presenting Channel Four programme Embarrassing Bodies, to pay damages of £125,000 and Mrs Foster’s legal costs.
The judge also addressed the fact that Dr Jessen failed to respond to warnings from Mrs Foster’s lawyer – which became the subject of mainstream media coverage.
“The offending tweet remained on the defendant’s Twitter account for two weeks, a Twitter account with 311,000 followers,” he said.
“The tweet was liked approximately 3,500 times and it was retweeted 517 times.
“This outrageously bad libel cut [Mrs Foster] to the core, causing her considerable upset, distress, humiliation, embarrassment and hurt.”
During a previous hearing, Mrs Foster had told the court she was left humiliated by the unfounded rumour which “trashed” her 25-year marriage.
The court was also told that Dr Jessen did not engage with the legal case for more than 12 months because he believed “most things including court proceedings” had been stalled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
He said he had taken “some considerable time off” work because of ill-health and said he rarely watched television or read newspapers.
The former Harley Street doctor was asked why he had not heeded a tweet from Mrs Foster’s solicitor Paul Tweed on 24 December 2019, instructing him to remove the tweet or face legal action.
Dr Jessen said he had read the tweet but did not realise Mr Tweed was a lawyer, adding that he would have been “scrolling through many replies”.
“I never imagined and still find it hard to imagine a lawyer would tweet a statement to me over Twitter on Christmas Eve,” he told the court.
“The likelihood of me not taking it seriously, which I didn’t, is very high.”
Belfast-based lawyer Mr Tweed is one of the world’s most high-profile libel lawyers – his client list has included singers Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and the late Michael Jackson, as well as Hollywood stars Harrison Ford, Nicolas Cage and Liam Neeson.
Speaking outside court after the ruling on Thursday morning, Mr Tweed described the outcome as a complete vindication for Mrs Foster and a potential “watershed” for all women who are attacked on social media.
Referring to Dr Jessen’s “LOL” response when learning of potential legal action against him, Mr Tweed said: “I don’t think Dr Jessen will be laughing this morning.”
Mrs Foster’s tenure as DUP leader will end on Friday. She remains as first minister until the end of June.
She announced her decision to resign in April after facing a revolt from DUP members.
Speaking to the BBC’s Newscast podcast on Thursday evening, Mrs Foster said she wants social media companies to require people to divulge their true identities when registering accounts.
She said she vowed to make tackling online “trolls” part of her life’s work, once she leaves front-line politics.
Mrs Foster said she was doing it, “for ordinary young people and for women who find themselves attacked just because they’re different from how people want them to be”.
She said that she was worried that people on Twitter act as if it is the “wild west”.
“Somebody needs to know who owns the Twitter account and who’ll be accountable if they decide to tweet harmful and abusive and, frankly, libellous comments,” she said.
On her libel case victory, the outgoing DUP leader said: “[It] turns out actually you can’t say what you like on Twitter and get away with it. And I think if the case today sends that message then I’m very happy about that”.