Hamlins represented Anna Turley in her successful legal action against Unite the Union and Stephen Walker, the publisher and editor of the left-wing blog, The Skwawkbox, for libel, breach of the Data Protection Act, and misuse of private information/ breach of confidence in relation to an article published on the Skwawkbox. The Trial was heard by Mr Justice Nicklin at the Royal Courts of Justice in London for 6 days in November 2019. Mr Justice Nicklin delivered his Judgment in relation to Anna Turley’s libel claim on 19 December 2019, awarding Ms Turley £75,000 in damages.
The non-libel aspects of Ms Turley’s claim were settled by the parties during Trial, with Unite agreeing to pay Ms Turley £2,000 in damages.
Anna Turley sued Unite and Mr Walker in relation to an article titled “Exclusive: Progress MP ‘joins Unite’s unwaged section’ for GenSec vote” published on the Skwawkbox blog on 7 April 2017. The article concerned Ms Turley’s application to join Unite Community and wrongly alleged that she had made a “false declaration” to do so and that an official complaint had been sent to Unite’s Regional Secretary that was being investigated. The article also contained a press statement from Unite that read: “Unite welcomes new members but anyone joining on a fraudulent basis will prompt an investigation. A complaint has been received and is being investigated.”
Ms Turley contended that the article and the press statement were defamatory. She asserted that the libel was “extremely serious” and likely to affect her standing as an MP and her prospects in future elections. The Defendants failed to withdraw their allegation and the article remained online. Ms Turley sought additional aggravated damages.
The Defendants pleaded defences of ‘truth’ and ‘public interest’. The Defendants also claimed that Ms Turley had made dishonest statements in pursuit of her claims; that this amounted to an abuse of process and that she should only be awarded nominal damages. In this respect, the Defendants asserted in their opening at Trial that Ms Turley was “unfit to be an MP” – a statement made at a time when Ms Turley was standing for the recent general election, and which was reported in the media.
At Trial, the Court heard evidence from Ms Turley as well as Christopher Leslie, MP for Nottingham East, and Ruth Smeeth, MP for Stoke-on Trent North, amongst others.
Mr Justice Nicklin held that the publication of the article caused the Claimant serious harm and ruled that the Defendants’ defences of ‘truth’ and ‘public interest’ failed.
Whilst the Judge found that Ms Turley had failed to establish that Unite were responsible for the publication of the article, he did find that Unite were responsible for the publication of the press statement in the context of the article and that the meaning of the press statement was at least as serious as the meaning that the article as a whole ultimately bore (the meaning of the article having been agreed by consent by the parties). The Judge commented that “it is strongly arguable that [the press statement] bore a meaning more serious than this”. Further, the Judge commented that the provision of the press statement by Unite to Mr Walker “was the equivalent of throwing a substantial amount of fuel over a very small fire”.
Mr Justice Nicklin also provided guidance on responsible journalism and found that Mr Walker failed to give Ms Turley an adequate or fair opportunity to provide any comment or rebuttal of the allegations he intended to publish.
In relation to aggravated damages, Mr Justice Nicklin found that the Defendants’ conduct during trial had seriously aggravated Ms Turley’s harm and that the platform on which it was claimed that Ms Turley was not fit to be an MP had collapsed and sounded in aggravated damages. The £75,000 damages awarded to Ms Turley included all elements of aggravation.
The Judge rejected all of the Defendants’ allegations that Ms Turley had been dishonest.