Countdown presenter Rachel Riley claims to have won the first round of her High Court libel battle against Laura Murray, a former senior aide to Jeremy Corbyn, despite costs being awarded to neither side.
Riley is suing over a tweet Murray sent after the former Labour leader was egged by a Brexit supporter during a visit to Finsbury Park Mosque in March 2019.
Shortly after the incident, the 34-year-old TV presenter tweeted a picture of a January 2019 tweet by Guardian columnist Owen Jones about an attack on former British National Party leader Nick Griffin, in which Jones said: “I think sound life advice is, if you don’t want eggs thrown at you, don’t be a Nazi.”
Riley added “Good advice”, with an emoji of a red rose and an egg.
Later that day, Murray tweeted: “Today Jeremy Corbyn went to his local mosque for Visit My Mosque Day, and was attacked by a Brexiteer. Rachel Riley tweets that Corbyn deserves to be violently attacked because he is a Nazi. This woman is as dangerous as she is stupid. Nobody should engage with her. Ever.”
Riley, who at the time described Murray’s tweet as an “appalling distortion of the truth”, is now suing Murray for damages, claiming that the tweet contained “defamatory statements of fact” about her.
Murray argued that the tweet was not defamatory but a statement of her opinion.
Following a preliminary hearing conducted by written submissions, Justice Nicklin ruled on Friday that the meaning of Murray’s tweet was that Riley “had publicly stated in a tweet that he (Mr Corbyn) deserved to be violently attacked”, which he found was a statement of fact.
The judge also ruled that the part of Murray’s tweet which said Riley was “as dangerous as she is stupid” was an expression of opinion which meant that Riley had “shown herself to be a dangerous and stupid person who risked inciting unlawful violence”.
Justice Nicklin said both elements were defamatory at common law, but his judgement was leaked to the press ahead of being given, leading to serious concerns with regards to the confidentiality of legal proceedings.
Nicklin rejected as untenable Murray’s contention that a reasonable reader of her tweet would understand the reference to Riley apparently stating that Corbyn “deserved to be violently attacked” to be an expression of opinion.
Justice Nicklin said he found that it was “a simple factual statement and would be understood as such,” adding that “an imputation that a person had publicly supported a violent attack on someone is plainly defamatory at common law… It is conduct which would substantially affect, in an adverse manner, the attitude of other people towards the claimant or have a tendency so to do.
Sources close to Murray said that, contrary to press reports, neither party “won,” and suggested that the judiciary now had to explain how Nicklin’s judgement came to be printed in newspapers a day before being given.
“The draft judgement in Laura’s case was leaked to the right-wing press 24 hours before it was delivered by the judge,” said a source close to Murray.
“When press reports of the draft started to appear it was immediately reported to the judge who was very concerned about the breach of the embargo. This was a serious breach of the courts explicit directions to the parties in this litigation and may be treated as contempt of court.”
On Riley’s claims to have “won” the court battle, the source said: “The judge did not award costs to either party, which is an indication that no side ‘won’ at this preliminary hearing.
“Laura welcomes the areas in which the judge found in her favour including his finding that her critical view of Ms Riley – that she had shown herself to be dangerous and stupid and that people should not engage with her – was an expression of opinion.
“There are aspects of the ruling with which Laura respectfully does not agree and which she is considering taking to appeal.”