Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster has been awarded £125,000 in damages after suing a celebrity doctor over a tweet he posted about her in 2019.
In the tweet Dr Christian Jessen, best known for his Channel 4 TV show “Embarrassing Bodies”, alleged that Ms Foster had been having an affair with her close protection officer.
Mr Justice McAlinden said that this was “an outrageously bad libel”, which attacked Ms Foster’s integrity “at a most fundamental level” and affected “core aspects of her life”.
He said that there should be no doubt as to the baselessness of the allegations in this case.
He said it was a “highly prominent libel”, given the medium on which it was published, its repetition and the fact that it had remained online for two weeks.
Judge McAlinden said he accepts that the “public trashing” of Ms Foster’s marriage caused her “grave upset, distress, embarrassment and humiliation”.
He said that an associated allegation that Ms Foster was a hypocrite “stung deeply” and he accepted her evidence that she was not homophobic.
Last month, Ms Foster told the High Court in Belfast that she was hurt and humiliated by false allegations.
She said that her relationship with her husband of 25 years had been “trashed” and that it “cut to the very core” of her life.
The allegations were made in a tweet posted by Dr Jessen on 23 December 2019. The celebrity doctor had more than 300,000 Twitter followers at the time.
The tweet was removed two weeks after it was first posted, after it had been liked 3,500 times and retweeted more than 500 times.
The First Minister and DUP leader previously told the court that the categorically untrue tweet about the state of her relationship inflicted deep hurt at a time when she was attempting to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
“It was very humiliating to see the relationship that’s most important to me had been trashed, if you like, and put out there in the public domain in that fashion.”
“The allegation that I was having an adulterous relationship with one of my police officers clearly was the most hurtful issue.
And she said “it was almost as if this cut to the very core of my life”.
Judge McAlinden said it was clear that Dr Jessen uses Twitter to comment on matters around homosexuality and homophobia.
He said that he had attracted a large following and it was clear that a number of those attached weight to statements made by him on Twitter and other platforms.
Judge McAlinden said he “entirely accepts” that the meaning of the words used in the tweet was that Ms Foster had engaged in an affair, is a hypocrite and is homophobic.
He said there are many people who read it who believed the allegations were true and thought the worst of Ms Foster.
The judge said that following the removal of the Tweet, he considered it “very likely” that it continued to appear on other Twitter pages and he said it was clear that the publication was “on a very large scale”.
He said it was clear from Ms Foster’s testimony that the experience of giving evidence about personal matters was very distressing.
“I accept the public trashing this aspect of her life caused her grave upset, distress, embarrassment and humiliation,” he said.
He said that the associated allegation of being a hypocrite also “stung deeply” and he said that he accepts Ms Foster’s evidence that she is not homophobic .
The judge said that that when such an accusation is made it is distressing.
“Her traditional religious views, which I accept are genuine and sincere, are views she is entitled to hold and express,” he said.
The Judge added that as Northern Ireland becomes more secular, there “must be room” for individuals to hold such views without being classed as homophobic.
He said Ms Foster stated that same sex marriage is legal and that she respects the law.
“I accept her evidence that she is not homophobic,” he said.
Mr Justice McAlinden said there was nothing in the conduct of Dr Jessen in this case that could constitute a mitigating factor.
He said that the appropriate sum to award Ms Foster was £125,000. Dr Jessen was also ordered to pay Ms Foster’s legal costs.
Last month, despite receiving a default judgment, the case was put on hold as the doctor mounted an eleventh hour defence.
He claimed he never received court papers sent to his London apartment and was unaware the case had reached a hearing.
Mr Justice McAlinden said that Dr Jessen’s response to the case had been “woefully inadequate and deliberately misleading”, and that the failure to publish any form of an apology or retraction were further aggravating features.