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'grossly defamatory' TV doctor Christian Jessen to pay record damages over 'outrageous libel' about Arlene Foster in tweet

Embarrassing Bodies medic’s tweet was most serious libel and is grossly defamatory – judge

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Arlene Foster has launched legal proceedings against Christian Jessen.

Arlene Foster has launched legal proceedings against Christian Jessen.

Arlene Foster. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Arlene Foster. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Dr Christian Jessen

Dr Christian Jessen

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Arlene Foster has launched legal proceedings against Christian Jessen.

Celebrity doctor Christian Jessen is to pay Arlene Foster €145,000 (£125,000) in damages for a false tweet that she was having an extra-marital affair, a High Court judge has ruled.

Mr Justice McAlinden awarded the record figure to Northern Ireland's outgoing First Minister for the TV star's "grossly defamatory" and completely unfounded rumours.

The scale of payout was necessary to ensure her complete vindication over the baseless allegations, he held.

The judge said: "It was an outrageous libel concerning an individual of considerable standing, attacking her integrity at a most fundamental level and it involves the trashing in a very public fashion the relationship that Mrs Foster holds dearest in her life.

"It affected core aspects of the plaintiff's life, namely, her relationship with her husband and her deep Christian faith."

Outside court Mrs Foster's solicitor described the outcome as a complete vindication for the politician and a potential "watershed" for all women attacked on social media.

Referring to Dr Jessen's "LOL" response when learning of potential legal action against him, Mr Tweed added: "I don't think Dr Jessen will be laughing this morning."

Dr Jessen was also ordered to pay Mrs Foster's legal costs in taking the action.

She sued the Harley Street medic, best known for presenting Channel 4 shows Embarrassing Bodies and Supersize v Superskinny, over a tweet published to his 311,000 followers on December 23, 2019 and only taken down two weeks later.

It involved baseless claims that the then Democratic Unionist Party leader was in an adulterous relationship with one of her close protection officers.

In evidence she described how the untrue rumours humiliated her at a time when she was involved in talks to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Foster told the court how the posting two days before Christmas "trashed" her 25-year marriage, adding: "It was almost as if this cut to the very core of my life."

Even though she had already secured default judgment, a ruling on the scale of damages was put on hold after Dr Jessen mounted an eleventh hour bid to enter a late defence.

He claimed that he never received court papers sent to his London apartment and was unaware the case had reached hearing.

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The defendant insisted that he shut out all news during 2020 and moved back in with his mother and father because of the pandemic and his own depression.

During two days of questioning in the witness box, Dr Jessen said a scenario he discussed in podcasts of Xbox gaming sessions with his partner at their flat had been "invented" to hide his deteriorating mental health.

But the judge rejected his portrayal of a retreat from public life as a "forlorn" attempt to persuade the court he was back at his parents home.

"Dr Jessen has chosen to ignore these proceedings until shocked into action by the scale of the press coverage of Mrs Foster's evidence," he said.

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Dr Christian Jessen

Dr Christian Jessen

Dr Christian Jessen

In cross-examination the defendant claimed his motivation for the false tweet was to highlight any possible hypocrisy over the DUP's stance on marriage equality and abortion.

The court heard that after being put on notice by Mr Foster's solicitor, Paul Tweed, he responded by posting "LOL (Laugh Out Loud)".

A further comment on his Twitter account declared: "People are now comparing me to Barbra Streisand - this gay boy's life cannot get any better!!!!."

The so-called "Streisand effect" is a social media phenomenon where an attempt to remove or censor information has the unintended consequence of further publication.

With the libel retweeted 517 times and liked by at least 3,500 users, Mr Justice McAlinden accepted submissions that others would have formed the view "if Dr Christian Jessen is tweeting this, then it must be true".

Assessing the scale of damage inflicted, he said: "To state that a woman, married for twenty five and a half years and the mother of three children, who is a committed Christian and is publicly recognised as such, who has publicly made statements extolling the sanctity and importance of marriage as a sacred relationship between a man and a woman, who also happens to be the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, its former spokesperson on equality and human rights and a holder of the Office of First Minister of Northern Ireland, was an adulterer, a hypocrite and a homophobe, is a most serious libel and is grossly defamatory.

"It called into question the plaintiff's fitness and suitability to occupy the Office of First Minister at a time when delicate negotiations were continuing on the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive.

"In short, I consider that this was an outrageously bad libel."

The failure to take down the tweet for two weeks and the scale of publicity it attracted was taken into account, along with the need to ensure vindication for Mrs Foster.

"I readily accept the plaintiff's evidence that this outrageously bad libel cut her to the core, causing very considerable upset, distress, humiliation, embarrassment and hurt," the judge said.

"Bearing in mind the time of year and the work-related pressures the plaintiff was under at that time, I fully accept this libel took a heavy emotional toll on the plaintiff despite her experience of having to deal with the heat of robust political debate.

"Her marriage, her family life and her faith are the most important things in her life.

"These things provide important pillars of support for her and it was these things that were being publicly trashed."

He continued: "In terms of the timing of the tweet, Mrs Foster is genuinely concerned that the timing may have been deliberately chosen to undermine the negotiations concerning the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive.

"For the avoidance of doubt, I do not ascribe to the defendant the knowledge of or interest in Northern Ireland politics which would be a prerequisite to giving any detailed consideration to the possibility that the timing of this tweet was intended to influence the outcome of the negotiations.

"However, in respect of the anonymous tweets that preceded the defendant's much more prominent statement, such a motivation cannot be dismissed out of hand."

Dr Jessen's "woefully inadequate and deliberately misleading" response to the case when one was finally made, and the failure to publish any form of apology or retraction were further aggravating features.

According to Mr Justice McAlinden this was significantly compounded by his evidence that he believed the rumours were true and he wanted to expose what he saw as Mrs Foster's hypocrisy on issues such as same sex marriage.

Confirming an award of £125,000 in damages, he also ordered Dr Jessen to pay her legal costs.

"It is necessary that any award made in this case is sufficient to convince a bystander of the baselessness of the charge," the judge said.

"There should be considerable element of vindication in the award and no reduction is warranted bearing in mind the absence of any form of apology."

Outside court, Arlene Foster's solicitor Paul Tweed said: "My client is very satisfied with the substantial sum in damages awarded by the court, which I believe to be a record sum for a defamatory tweet.

"It also takes into account a number of aggravating factors in the case, including Dr Jessen's failure to retract and apologise."

He stressed: "Dr Jessen has been offered every opportunity to do the right thing in this regard from the outset, but has pointedly failed to do so.

"My client is grateful to the court for this total vindication, which hopefully will also act as an encouragement and a watershed for all women in public life who have been subject to similar vitriolic attacks on social media."

With further enforcement proceedings now expected, the solicitor said it would not be appropriate for Mrs Foster to make any further comment at this stage.

But he added: "On Christmas Day 2019 Dr Jessen's response to my warning of the false and defamatory nature of his tweet was to simply tweet 'LOL (laugh out loud)'.

"I don't think Dr Jessen will be laughing this morning."

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