At the High Court today, judgment was handed down by Mr Justice Nicklin in the libel action brought by Rotherham resident, Zahir Monir, against Steve Wood, the former chairman of Bristol UKIP, and UKIP’s parliamentary candidate for the Bristol South constituency in the May 2015 General Election.
Mr Monir has been awarded £40,000 damages and his costs. The Judge said: “It needs to be stated clearly: Mr Monir is completely innocent. He has been seriously libelled. He has been forced to fight a libel claim all the way through to trial with every single conceivable point being taken against him.”
He had sued over a Tweet posted on the Bristol UKIP Twitter account on 4 May 2015 – three days before the General Election. The Tweet consisted of a photo of Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham together with two men, one of whom was Zahir Monir. The text of the Tweet read “Sarah champion labour candidate for Rotherham together with two suspended child grooming taxi drivers DO NOT VOTE LABOUR”
The completely false and highly damaging allegation that Mr Monir was involved in the sexual abuse of children quickly spread, through republication on social media and WhatsApp, to people who knew Mr Monir, people who knew who he was, and even to members of his family. Mr Monir had been active in local politics for the Labour party, including support for Sarah Champion MP, and had also been involved in charity and community work. It means he has a reasonably high local profile.
The Tweet had actually been written and posted by self-styled “maverick” John Langley, who at the time was Vice Chairman of Bristol UKIP, while also maintaining a side-line as a pornographic film-maker and actor under the pseudonym ‘Johnny Rockard’. Mr Wood had set up the Bristol UKIP Twitter account and Mr Langley was appointed as the campaign manager for the Branch under instruction not to publish anything racist or too contentious. Mr Monir brought his libel action against Mr Wood because there would have been no prospect of obtaining vindication or recovering damages from Mr Langley.
This was, therefore, an unusual and important case because it had to examine who is legally responsible for publication of social media posts. No-one has ever contended that the appalling allegation about Mr Monir in the Tweet had a grain of truth in it although the Judge stated that: “Some of the points made on behalf of Mr Wood come perilously close to the unattractive submission that Mr Monir is himself to blame for at least some of the harm to his reputation. I reject that completely.”
After a seven day trial, Mr Justice Nicklin found that Mr Langley “was quite clearly acting as the agent of Mr Wood when he was posting material to the Bristol UKIP Twitter account including the 4 May Tweet”
He also found that Mr Wood had been put on notice of the Tweet in a phone call from Mr Monir on 8 May 2015 and so in any event he was liable for the continued publication of the Tweet thereafter.
The Judge based his award of damages on his finding that “notwithstanding the fairly limited publication there is evidence of serious and significant reputational harm…It has transformed the life of Mr Monir and his family for the worse.”
He also found that Mr Wood’s “intransigence and his refusal publicly to apologise and to withdraw the allegation that Mr Monir was involved in the sexual abuse of children” substantially increased the hurt and stress occasioned to Mr Monir and this had “a significant effect on the award of damages”.
The Judge commented that “Had this libel been published in a national newspaper an award of £250,000 or more could easily have been justified.”
After judgment had been handed down, Jeremy Clarke-Williams of Penningtons Manches (Mr Monir’s solicitor) said:
“The publication of the vile and baseless Tweet for cynical political reasons has caused huge damage and distress to Zahir Monir and his family. This judgment provides him with the complete vindication he deserves. He has had to endure more than three years of suffering and stress to achieve this victory and the failure of the defendant to apologise for, or retract, the allegation is, as the judge noted, “On simply a human level…a difficult stance to understand.”
From a legal point of view, the judgment is extremely important and every organisation will need to read it carefully to appreciate the potential liability of those who set up social media accounts but then delegate others to send out publications on their behalf and for their benefit. If you are responsible for letting a maverick genie out of the bottle then you are likely to face the legal consequences – and in the era of fake news that presents a real risk.”