A High Court judge heard pre-trial submissions on Wednesday over a pending libel case between the TV presenter Rachel Riley and the blogger and activist Michael Sivier.
Mr Sivier published an article on his website, “Vox Political, politics for the people”, on January 26 2019, entitled “Serial abuser Rachel Riley to receive ‘extra protection’— on grounds that she is receiving abuse”. He contended that the narrative of Ms Riley as a victim, as portrayed in the press, was wrong and suggested that she, and the actress Tracy-Ann Oberman, had spearheaded on-line abuse themselves against a 16-year-old girl.
In a complex ruling in a “Determination of Meaning” hearing, Mr Justice Nicklin told barristers David Mitchell, for Mr Sivier, and William Bennett QC for Ms Riley, that he accepted that some parts of Mr Sivier’s article were factual allegations, and that others were opinion. He ruled that Mr Sivier’s description of Ms Riley as having acted “obscenely by subjecting a vulnerable 16-year-old girl to serial abuse and has recklessly acted in such a way as to encourage her followers to make death threats against the girl and to subject her to an appalling amount abuse” was a factual allegation.
But the judge said that he believed other parts of Mr Sivier’s comments fell into the category of opinion. At one point Mr Sivier wrote: “I’m not saying Ms Riley intentionally tried to get her followers to threaten this girl with death, But nobody can deny that her irresponsibility has encouraged others to do so, and that she has been reckless as to the consequences of her behaviour”. Mr Justice Nicklin declared this to be an opinion, and therefore not subject to the claim of libel. Mr Sivier also called Ms Riley a “hypocrite” which the judge said was “a value judgment” on her conduct.
Much of Wednesday’s hearing was taken up with a detailed discussion of three “hyperlinks” in Mr Sivier’s article, two of which would take the reader to more than 100 pages of in-depth analysis by commentator Shaun Lawson of Ms Riley’s and Ms Oberman’s actions. But the judge said that the “ordinary reader” would have understood the broad factual allegations against Ms Riley without having to go on to read the Lawson arguments. “Only the most tenacious reader would have read those links”, he said.
Mr Sivier now has until January 29 2020 to prepare his full defence. He has launched a crowd-funding appeal to pay for his legal costs and representation.