Arlene Foster - Christian Jessen libel action ‘could help curb online abuse’

The media attention generated by the Arlene Foster libel action could increase pressure on social media companies to clamp down on abuse and misinformation, an online safety specialist has said.

Friday, 28th May 2021, 2:18 pm
Arlene Foster's solicitor Paul Tweed (left) outside Belfast High Court following the defamation judgment on Thursday. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

On Thursday, a judge in Belfast ordered TV presenter Dr Christian Jessen to pay the outgoing First Minister and DUP leader £125,000 in damages over an “outrageous” defamatory tweet.

In December 2019 Dr Jessen, who is best known for appearing on the Channel 4 show ‘Embarrassing Bodies’, posted a Twitter message making the false allegation that Mrs Foster was having an extramarital affair.

Mr Justice McAlinden said: “It is an outrageous libel concerning an individual of considerable standing, attacking her integrity at the most fundamental level, and it involves the trashing in a very public fashion of the relationship that Mrs Foster holds dearest in her life.”

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Dr Christian Jessen at Belfast High Court . Photo: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Online safety specialist, author and podcast presenter Wayne Denner said: “Something good could come from this case as people are now aware of the financial penalty involved... in relation to defamation and harassment.

“This is a high-profile case involving somebody who had the resources and the means available to pursue this. The reality of it is, most people don’t have that money to be able to hire a specialist law firm to deal with it.

“So the harassment continues and there is no recourse. The social media platforms need to do more work at their end and clean up their own back yard. There has to be accountability.”

Mr Denner added: “It’s important to remember that this extends beyond reputational damage. This moves into distress, embarrassment, hurt and mental health issues.

Outgoing NI First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

“I do a lot of work in schools, going in to talk to young people about what they should and shouldn’t post.

“Back in 2015 I wrote a book on this – The Students Guide to an Epic Reputation.

“The book highlights case studies of people who have missed out on a place at university, been kicked out of a university and even lost a job because of material they have posted online.”

Mr Denner said the Foster defamation case has shone a spotlight on just how costly a few lines of text on social media can be.

“It’s been going on for a long time, but it’s only when something like this happens that it hits the mainstream. Many times I have reported things [that have been posted] on social media and nothing has been done about it,” he added.

Arlene Foster has said she is planning to dedicate her time to combating online abuse.

Ms Foster, who will be replaced as DUP leader by Edwin Poots, has said she will now use her time out of office to tackling online trolls.

Following the libel award, Ms Foster said: “Turns out actually you can’t say what you like on Twitter and get away with it.”

On the BBC’s Newscast podcast, she added: “What I worry about is when people who act on Twitter as if it’s the Wild West, that can say whatever they like, and then others join in and pile in to cause maximum harm and maximum damage.”

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