The High Court has ordered Twitter to provide two journalists with details about certain accounts that published allegedly malicious and defamatory posts about them.
Arising out of the tweets, which were posted on various dates between 2020 and 2021, reporters Aoife Moore and Allison Morris have brought High Court actions, including defamation proceedings against Twitter International Company and the former Sunday Independent columnist, Eoghan Harris.
He denies the claims, while Twitter says it does not want to be involved in the dispute between the two reporters and Mr Harris.
Ruling on a pretrial issue on Monday, Mr Justice Mark Sanfey found Ms Morris, of the Belfast Telegraph, and Ms Moore, of the Sunday Times, were entitled to disclosure orders in respect of a Twitter account with the Barbara J Pym handle.
Ms Morris was also entitled to a disclosure order in respect of another account, ‘Northern Whig’ she claims posted defamatory comments about her.
The judge was not prepared to make any disclosure orders concerning another account, called ‘Dolly White’, or for any retweets of any of the allegedly defamatory material.
The journalists claim they have been the subject of defamatory tweets published by the accounts and have brought proceedings to vindicate their good names and professional reputations.
The tweets, they claim, have wrongfully and maliciously stated the reporters are biased and are supporters of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin.
They sought orders, known as a ‘Norwich Pharmacal’ orders, requiring Twitter to disclose the identities of persons, who controlled, or used, accounts, including the Barbara J Pym and Dolly White accounts.
Ms Morris also sought disclosure orders relating to @whignorthern account, which she claims posted defamatory comments about her.
The information sought includes IP addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and any other contact details of persons they claim are associated with those particular accounts.
They also seek details of log-in times from when the posts complained of were published. They want Twitter to provide the names and contact details of other account holders who they claim republished or retweeted any of the allegedly defamatory material posted by Barbara J Pym account and other allegedly linked accounts.
Twitter, which claims it is not part of the defamation row, had opposed their application on grounds that the orders sought are burdensome, unnecessary and beyond the scope of what disclosure orders normally allow.
It suggested that the court make an alternative order, containing a formula of words which it would neither oppose nor consent to. The reporters’ lawyers opposed Twitter’s position and argued they should be granted the precise orders sought.
Mr Harris opposed the applications for disclosure orders against him. He accepts he alone is behind the Barbara J Pym account. He says he has nothing to do with @whignorthern. Mr Harris’s wife Gwen Halley had control of the ‘Dolly White’ account, the court heard.
The reporters, represented by Tom Hogan SC, sought the disclosure orders because they believe that several persons may have either contributed to the accounts. If others were involved, they may seek to join them to their defamation actions.
They claim Mr Harris’s contention that he alone controlled the Barbara J Pym account contradicted earlier statements and comments made by him in an RTÉ interview, when he said that other, unnamed persons contributed to the account.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Sanfey said he was satisfied the evidence justified granting the reporters disclosure orders to determine the identity of the alleged wrongdoers.
While the judge had no view as to whether the tweets identified are defamatory, he was prepared to grant the reporters disclosure orders against Twitter in respect of the ‘Barabara J Pym’ account. The judge said he was also prepared to grant Ms Morris a disclosure order against Twitter in respect of the ‘Nothern Whig’ account.
The information to be disclosed by Twitter in respect of those accounts, the judge added, includes screen names, email and IP addresses of logins, telephone numbers provided by the user at the time the accounts were registered.
The judge said he had no view to the veracity of Mr Harris’s claim that he was the only person that ever-had access to or published on the Barbara J Pym account, other than to note there were public statements by him that “could reasonably be viewed as to contradicting it”.
The judge said that the disclosure order against Twitter could produce information that may entirely vindicate Mr Harris’s position regarding the Barbara J Pym account.
It was appropriate to make disclosure orders regarding Twitter only and await the outcome of that process before deciding if the court should make any such order against Mr Harris, the judge added.
“If that process does indeed indicate definitively that Mr Harris position is correct, no further disclosure by Mr Harris in respect of the Barbara J Pym account will be necessary,” the judge said.
The judge adjourned the balance of the applications against Mr Harris, with permission to return to court, so the parties can consider their positions once the disclosure process is complete. He also rejected a limitation of 60 days proposed by Twitter as being unrealistic and arbitrary.
Given the limited scope of the overall orders being made, the judge considered the limitation of information from the dates of the first allegedly defamatory tweets, which commenced in dates in 2020 and concluded up to 13 months later in 2021, was appropriate.
There was no evidence put before the court to suggest this range of information would be unduly onerous or burdensome for Twitter, he said.
The judge said he would require an undertaking from the plaintiffs that the information furnished would not be used for any purpose other than seeking redress for the wrongs alleged. The plaintiffs must also pay Twitter’s costs of the applications.