What’s the story?
Food blogger Jack Monroe won £24,000 in damages – and over £100k in legal costs – after successfully suing Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins over two libellous tweets. Media lawyers now believe the judge has set a virtual ‘tariff’ for such offences, as the lines between free speech and hate speech remain blurred.
Katie Hopkins has made a career out of being horrible on the Internet, but she may have to rethink her approach after she was on the wrong end of a successful lawsuit. Hopkins – who rose to fame on BBC1’s The Apprentice – is routinely found saying the most outrageous and unthinkably-unkind things in response to current affairs, and has been an outspoken and cruel opponent of accepting refugees from war-torn Syria. She met her match however when abusing food blogger and feminist Jack Monroe over the social media platform Twitter – Monroe successfully sued her for libel.
Hopkins was apparently targeting the wrong person with two tweets which suggested Monroe advocated daubing war graves with graffiti. One of them read: “@MsJackMonroe scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals?”
Mr Justice Warby, who ruled in the High Court case, agreed that Hopkins “meant that Ms Monroe condoned and approved of scrawling on war memorials, vandalising monuments commemorating those who fought for her freedom". He ruled that this, and another similar tweet “caused Ms Monroe real and substantial distress,” as well as serious harm to her reputation.” He ordered that Hopkins pay Monroe £24,000 in damages, as well as paying £107,000 in legal costs.
Media Lawyer Mark Stephens told the BBC that the case would “undoubtedly encourage more claims.” He continued: "The courts will allow robust debate and will consider posts and comments to see if they were meant as fact or a joke.
"But the fact remains that if comments cause serious harm, legal action is likely to follow."
Such analysis might worry anyone who has ever found themselves sucked into an online dispute that’s turned nasty. There are some people who seem to relish the chance to be unkind online – often dubbed trolls by the media and by other users – but many other people have seen arguments get out of hand, and written things online that perhaps they’d now regret or take back. To both of these groups, Mr Justice Warby’s ruling could have profound implications.
What have others been saying?
Sky News reported that hours after the ruling, Hopkins tweeted an image of her face photo-shopped on to the Virgin Mary, alongside the phrase “I see myself as the Jesus of the outspoken.”
Similarly-waspish columnist Camilla Long wrote in The Times that the case could be the thin end of a wedge, as police are already being empowered to impose fines for swearing.
I wrote this piece for Christian Today, suggesting that “Taming the tongue extends to the Internet too, and it’s time we caught up.”
#1 – TAMING THE TONGUE
Both Paul and Jesus are clear about the importance of watching our speech. In Ephesians 4 v 29, the Apostle writes “do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths but only what is helpful to building each other up”, while Jesus tells his followers in Matthew 15 v 11 that it’s not what goes into someone’s mouth (i.e. food) that defiles them, but what comes out of it (i.e. speech). James goes even further – calling the tongue “a fire... set on fire by hell” (James 3 v 6). As Christians, mastery of our speech is one of the great battles of discipleship, and one we must vitally invest ourselves in if we’re going to be distinct...
#2 – SALT AND LIGHT
With so much negativity and unkindness on social media, Christians potentially have a significant and Bible-backed role to play on platforms such as Twitter. In his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Matthew 5, Jesus talks about the important place his followers should take in their culture, calling them ‘salt’ (enhancing the flavour of the world and preserving it from sin) and ‘light’ (illuminating the dark places of society). Both of these metaphors apply as perfectly to the online world as they do to the offline. Christians can either contribute to the back-biting and unpleasantness on social media, or they can be distinct and different.
Points for prayer
- Pray for Katie Hopkins, that her heart would soften – or else that she would no longer seek to spread unkindness through the exaggerated character she communicates through the media.
- Pray for judges and lawmakers, that they would be able to walk the line between protecting Free Speech and punishing hatred.
- Pray for an atmosphere change in social media as these platforms become an increasingly central part of our everyday lives; that trolling would decline, and that the presence of Christians online would have a positive effect.
Martin Saunders is Youthscape’s Deputy Chief Executive. A former editor of Youthwork magazine and the founding Editor of sister-title Childrenswork, Martin is a popular speaker and the author of various books including ‘Youth Work From Scratch’. He lives in Reigate, Surrey with his wife Jo and their four children.