Sivier v Riley: George Green successful in the Court of Appeal

George Green partner Morgan Rees and solicitor Emma Barton successfully represented a journalist in this important Court of Appeal case concerning the ambit of the public interest defence under section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013. The case has been widely reported in the national press and is also of considerable interest to media lawyers.

Countdown presenter Rachel Riley issued defamation proceedings against Vox Political journalist Mike Sivier following his publication of an article entitled "Serial abuser Rachel Riley to receive ‘extra protection’ – on grounds that she is receiving abuse". Lord Justice Warby summarised the publication by observing "It will be seen that the Article began by referring to some statements Ms Riley had reportedly made in or via the national media about online abuse of which she had been the victim. It then made a number of allegations about Ms Riley's own online behaviour, commencing with a suggestion that she herself was a "serial abuser". The allegations included assertions about Ms Riley's conduct towards a teenage girl who was said to have received death threats. Mr Sivier told readers that evidence in support of what he was telling them was to be found in two external articles, to which hyperlinks were provided".

The High Court struck out Mr Sivier's defences of truth, honest opinion and publication on a matter of public interest. However, the Court of Appeal decided that Mr Sivier would be permitted to proceed to trial on a defence of publication on a matter of public interest. Lord Justice Warby found:

There is relatively little authority on the notion of public interest in this context, but it is common ground that it is necessarily a broad concept. In the common law of fair comment, it was well-established that matters of public interest included the public conduct of public figures and any statement which the claimant – whether or not she was a public figure - had put before the public for consideration... A major theme of the Article was the charge of hypocrisy. Mr Sivier was contrasting what Ms Riley had said to millions via the news media (Channel 4 News, The Times, and The Guardian) with her own public behaviour in front of hundreds of thousands on Twitter. Mr Sivier was suggesting that her public statements deprecating online abuse were at odds with her own conduct, which was that of a serial abuser who had encouraged others to threaten the life of a teenage girl. He was, in the process, criticising Ms Riley's conduct on the public platform of Twitter, suggesting it was a cause of the death threats made to Rose. No doubt there is more than one way to put it, but one way it could be put is that the matters of public interest which the Article was "on", or about, were the public conduct of a prominent public figure and, in particular, statements she had made or caused to be made publicly (a) in a media interview and (b) on Twitter.

The case is a welcome clarification of the correct approach to public interest defences, which the Court of Appeal indicated are "to protect those who honestly and reasonably get their facts wrong when publishing on matters of public interest".

George Green briefed David Mitchell of 39 Essex Chambers.

The full judgment is available from this link.

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