The libertarian right, especially that part of it which started life all those years ago claiming to be the Revolutionary Communist Party, is so wedded to its own perverse notion of free speech that it fails totally to understand that there are limits to just how loudly one can expect to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre - or joke about blowing up airports, or smear others are child molesters. There is no such thing as absolute free speech.
This lack of understanding is personified by the wilful and predictable ramblings of Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked, so called because most of its content certainly should have been. Bren has taken up the case of pro-am motormouth Katie Hopkins and her defeat in the courts yesterday after defaming writer and campaigner Jack Monroe.
Sadly, he goes wrong at the start: “£24,000 for a Tweet? What a dark day for free speech” reads the title, revealing that what O’Neill did not read was the judgment handed down just after 1400 hours yesterday. Had he done so, he would know that the award of damages by Mr Justice Warby related to two Tweets: “my award is £24,000. That is divided into
£16,000 for the First Tweet and £8,000 for the Second Tweet”.
This may not invalidate O’Neill’s line of attack, but does show the lackadaisical autopilot response, as does “If we take the first offending tweet, about war memorials, which was 20 words long, this works out at around £1,200 per word”. Moreover, as Bren knows all too well, it is the damage done by the publication of these words - just as it would be if they were published in print, or in any other online-only forum.
He also elevates Ms Hopkins’ status beyond reality, calling her “Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins”. She is not a Daily Mail columnist, but appears only at Mail Online. The print title has declined to publish her writings. Again, O’Neill’s lazy lack of basic fact checking is all too apparent, as is his recourse to demeaning and diminishing Jack Monroe, calling them a “Guardianista kale fan”. This observation is sneering - and irrelevant.
Bren is again prone to dismiss Hopkins’ actions by sneering at Mx Monroe as he asserts “It’s understandable Hopkins confused Monroe and Penny: both are drab writers obsessed with their own identities and given to blathering”. Lack of self-awareness, much?
There is also justification by claiming it was all a mistake: “Hopkins realised her mistake and deleted the tweet … making a mistake in a tweet … so what? She deleted her wrongness”. The lie, as O’Neill knows all too well, had already gone halfway around the world. He also knows Ms Hopkins was given the chance to apologise, to show she really had made a mistake, as is claimed. She did not.
O’Neill also harms his defence of Hatey Katie by sneering at Mr Justice Warby: “The single judge who ruled on this case - so much for our ‘liberalised’ libel laws”. Once again, if he had bothered to read the judgment, he would see that that judge had consulted, as the law demands, relevant precedent with commendable diligence.
And claiming “Monroe joins Saudi plutocrats, Russian oligarchs and other unpleasant characters in using England’s libel laws” is just abusive. There are limits to free speech. Publishing on Twitter does not mean “you can get away with it because it’s only Twitter”.
O’Neill also knows that, as with so much of English case law, precedent has been established in this area - he did, after all, write about the McAlpine case, where Sally Bercow, wife of the Commons Speaker, found herself in legal hot water over her “innocent face” Twitter excursion. She, too, found herself severely out of pocket.
What Bren can’t get his head around is that Katie Hopkins has already lost a Sun column over her abusive and righteous behaviour. She has landed Mail Online with a huge costs and damages bill after defaming a Muslim family last year. She knows the risks. She did not make a mistake when she declined to apologise to Jack Monroe.
Publishing brings the risk of being damned. Katie Hopkins invited that on herself. She had the opportunity to admit making a mistake; she failed to take it.
If Brendan O’Neill can’t get his head around the realities of this case, that is his problem. It is only a pity that he keeps trying to make it someone else’s.