Julie Burchill to pay substantial damages & public apology to Ash Sarkar in defamation/ harassment case

Ash Sarkar’s libel and harassment case against Julie Burchill (aka Raven) has succeeded. Ms Sarkar has won substantial damages from Ms Burchill and an unreserved apology for publishing false and defamatory statements about Ms Sarkar. Ms Burchill has also entered an undertaking not to engage in harassment of Ms Sarkar. This comprehensive legal settlement, which includes payment for Ms Sarkar’s legal costs, and a further undertaking not to contact her again, brings Ms Sarkar’s defamation and harassment claims to a successful conclusion. She was represented by Zillur Rahman of Rahman Lowe Solicitors, and Counsel Mark Henderson of Doughty Street Chambers in all her claims.

Following the settlement, Ms Burchill has just published on Twitter and Facebook a statement which her tweet and post describe as a “full and wholehearted apology”. In her posts, Ms Burchill asks Twitter and Facebook users to “please retweet/share”. In her full statement, Ms Burchill confirms that “I unreservedly and unconditionally apologise for the hurtful and unacceptable statements I made to and about Ms Sarkar, particularly those concerning her religion and Prophet Muhammad”. She accepted that her claims about Ms Sarkar were defamatory, “included racist and misogynist comments regarding Ms Sarkar’s appearance and her sex life”, and “play[ed] into Islamophobic tropes”.

The original defamatory allegations were published by Ms Burchill on 13 December 2020, but Ms Burchill continued to post about and towards Ms Sarkar for many days during the Christmas period. Ms Burchill has accepted in her statement that, “I should not have sent these tweets, some of which included racist and misogynist comments regarding Ms Sarkar’s appearance and her sex life”.

Ash Sarkar is a British journalist and political activist. She is a senior editor at Novara Media which is an independent media outlet. She is of Asian (Bangladeshi) heritage and is Muslim.

Julie Burchill is a national newspaper columnist at the Sunday Telegraph and Spectator, and published author. She has maintained a high profile in the mainstream media for several decades.

The background to the claim is as follows.

The Defamation claims:

On 13 December 2020, an article originally published on 12 September 2012 in the Spectator by Rod Liddle became the subject of public debate and attracted substantial commentary online, wherein Mr Liddle stated that the one thing stopping him from becoming a teacher was "I could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids." Mr Liddle referred to Year 10 students, children aged 14 or 15.

Many expressed shock and concern about Mr Liddle’s article after it came to light. Ms Sarkar tweeted on 13 December 2020:

“Saw these screenshots pop up on TL, and thought they must be a parody. I checked and it turns out that yes, Rod Liddle really did write an article 8 years ago saying that he didn’t become a teacher because he “could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids”

Ms Sarkar is Muslim which appears to have been the basis for Ms Burchill questioning her publicly on Twitter about the age of Prophet Muhammad’s wife [Aisha] and then posting a tweet alleging that being Muslim meant worshipping the Prophet Muhammad (itself wrong) and that Ms Sarkar therefore condoned paedophilia:

              “But Ash … I don’t WORSHIP a paedophile. If Aisha was 9, YOU do. Lecturer, lecture thyself!”

Later, Ms Burchill took to Facebook to rally support by encouraging friends and followers towade in on Twitter againstthe Islamists, thereby referring to Ms Sarkar as an Islamist. The next day, Ms Burchill posted to her Facebook followers asking them to send a message to the nonces on Twitter, again referring to Ms Sarkar.

Ms Sarkar brought defamation complaints about the Twitter and Facebook statements plus the innuendo allegation that she was a hypocrite. In her claim, she stated that although the causes of action were multiple, “the nub of this case is a national newspaper columnist using her platform to make unprovoked allegations against an Asian Muslim woman that she is an Islamist who worships a paedophile [and] thereby combined two of the most damaging tropes of anti-Muslim hate: support for extreme fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism, and support for paedophilia and child sex exploitation/rape” adding that “such tropes incite religious and racial hatred against Muslims, and against Asian people who are perceived to be of Muslim heritage”.

In her statement following the conclusion of the case, Ms Burchill admits that following Ms Sarkar’s comment about “my friend, Rod Liddle”, Ms Burchill “alleged that Ms Sarkar worshipped the Prophet Muhammad, that she worshipped a paedophile (referring to the Prophet Muhammad), that she was an Islamist, and that she was a hypocrite (the allegations).” She admitted that these allegations were all false and said that “although it was not my intention, I accept that my statements were defamatory of Ms Sarkar and caused her very substantial distress.”

The course of conduct and the harassment claim:

Both before the defamatory statements described above and in the weeks that followed, Ms Burchill continued to send messages targeting Ms Sarkar, extending through the holiday period.

Ms Sarkar brought a claim for harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act, seeking an undertaking, or failing that an injunction, that Ms Burchill cease this course of conduct. In her claim, she stated that “repeated sexual and degrading comments, played out for [Mr Burchill’s] audience, carried a persistent threatening undertone [and Ms Burchill] knew and ought to have known the implications of the encouragement [Ms Burchill was] giving to [her] fellow travellers on social media to “wade in” by weaponising [Ms Sarkar’s] religion/race and how you linked it to her appearance and sex life.” She argued that the Islamophobic abuse was not protected by Article 10. Ms Sarkar “had expressed no opinion about Islam [and] had commented on a controversial article by another national newspaper columnist which had nothing to do with Islam yet [Ms Burchill] chose to use [Ms Sarkar’s] heritage to attack an Asian Muslim woman”

In her public apology, Ms Burchill said of her own tweets that:

“I also accept that I was wrong to continue to tweet to and about her after that date. I should not have sent these tweets, some of which included racist and misogynist comments regarding Ms Sarkar’s appearance and her sex life.”

Of her endorsements of the posts of others, Ms Burchill says that:

“I was also wrong to have “liked” other posts on Facebook and Twitter about her which were offensive, including one which called for her to kill herself, and another which speculated whether she had been a victim of FGM. I regret that I did not pay much attention to them at the time.  On reflection, I accept that these ‘liked’ posts included callous and degrading comments about Ms Sarkar and I should not have liked them.” 

In the wake of Ms Burchill’s statements and ‘likes’ of “callous and degrading comments about Ms Sarkar”, Ms Sarkar received further abuse, including misogynist as well as racist abuse, which Ms Burchill has accepted was “abhorrent” in her statement.

Ms Burchill says in her statement:

“I have also now seen messages that were sent to Ms Sarkar following my posts about her which are abhorrent, and I wish to make clear that I do not condone any such messages. I did not know when I published my posts that Ms Sarkar had previously received death threats and other violent threats and abuse…”

So many messages were generated that the issue was trending on Twitter in the UK between 13 and 14 December 2020 where more than 3,000 tweets has been posted discussing the dispute.

In response to Ms Burchill’s statements to Ms Sarkar on 13 December 2020, her publishers, Little, Brown announced that they were withdrawing from publishing Ms Burchill’s latest book, stating:

“While there is no legal definition of hate speech in the UK, we believe that Julie's comments on Islam are not defensible from a moral or intellectual standpoint, that they crossed a line with regard to race and religion, and that her book has now become inextricably linked with those views”.

This issue was covered by several major media outlets, including the BBC, Guardian, Independent, and the Times.

Little, Brown’s decision was subsequently portrayed by some in the media as ‘cowardly publishers bowing down to Islamic extremism’. This exacerbated the harm done to Ms Sarkar by the allegation that she was an Islamist, permitting the misleading impression that she was involved in pressurising Little, Brown into cancelling Ms Burchill’s book in the name of Islam. This is all despite the fact that Ms Sarkar had never called for Little, Brown to take any action. In Ms Burchill’s unreserved apology, she stated that "I also wish to make clear that I accept that Ms Sarkar did not call for my publisher to break ties with me and bears no responsibility for this”.

Commenting on the conclusion of her case, Ash Sarkar said:

“I’m relieved that the Sunday Telegraph columnist Julie Burchill has apologised for claims made about me last December which she admits were defamatory and play into Islamophobic tropes. We should expect a writer at a national newspaper to uphold a basic commitment to honesty. But Burchill subjected me to days of relentless harassment and abuse (including making the absurd and false claim that I worship a paedophile) all because I’m Muslim.

We should not accept women of colour being hounded out of public life simply for expressing themselves. This outcome is a victory for anyone who believes that people shouldn’t have to face abuse, harassment, or deranged smears just because they are part of a minority community.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Zillur Rahman, the team at Rahman Lowe and Mark Henderson for their support and professionalism. All too often legal recourse is out of reach for those without wealth, so I am beyond grateful to them for taking on my case.”

For more information, see here.

Media coverage includes: The Guardian here and here, BBC, Press Gazette, The Independent, and Daily Mail