With 5.7 million monthly visits to her Twitter feed in mid-2015, Katie Hopkins appeared to have the social media world in the palm of her hands. That is, until she crossed paths with Jack Monroe.
The Twitter war in question — in which Hopkins mistook Munroe for Laurie Penny, a columnist for the New Statesman — resulted in a clear message: Twitter is just as credible as any other publisher and far from the “Wild West of social media” it was once considered to be.
While the Monroe v Hopkins case demonstrated that libel damages for an ill-advised tweet remain, for the time being at least, relatively low, the overall cost of unsuccessfully defending a libel claim far exceeds the damages (£24,000) Hopkins was ordered to pay Monroe for the tweets.
Having subsequently applied for an individual voluntary arrangement to avoid bankruptcy, Hopkins may have learnt the hard and expensive way that defendants should take seriously reasonable offers to settle libel disputes promptly. In fact, she had two chances to settle, one on Twitter and another via her solicitors. Both, as can happen, were lower than the eventual sum Hopkins paid out.
Hopkins had sent two tweets on May 18, 2015, which, Munroe’s lawyers argued, implied that Munroe approved of the defacement of a war memorial during an anti-austerity march.
Monroe tweeted her followers to deny that Hopkins’ tweets were true, with Hopkins’ lawyers later arguing that Monroe’s denial acted as effectively retracting the tweets.
Unsurprisingly, the court disagreed, stating that denial was “not at all the same thing as corrections, retractions or apologies”. Monroe’s response was “inherently unlikely to undo the damage caused initially”, especially because she was unable to tweet her denial to Hopkins’ 570,000 followers, who were unlikely to have significantly overlapped with Monroe’s followers.
It is clear that if the claimant does not have access to the defendant’s followers, as was the case here, a target’s denial cannot successfully negate the harm caused. The court’s acceptance that Monroe had suffered “serious harm” to her reputation, albeit not “very serious” nor “grave”, acknowledges this.
With litigators keeping the forthcoming Supreme Court decision in Lachaux at the back of their minds, it currently stands that an apology is strictly irrelevant to the measure of serious harm, which is complete on publication.
In this instance, Hopkins’ delayed and incomplete apology — she tweeted on June 2 that “I was confused about identity. I got it wrong” — was, quite frankly, too little, too late. By failing to respond to Monroe’s tweets promptly, blocking her, and not engaging properly with Monroe’s lawyers, it may be that the court considered Hopkins had intended to defame Monroe and/or evade apologising.
Here, a prompt and sincere apology may well have put an end to the matter. There may, of course, have been a small cost to Hopkins’ pride and pocket, but it would have paled in comparison to the cost of her final legal bill.
This article was originally published in The Times' The Brief (subscription only).