Judge in Wilson vs Mendelsohn, Newbon and Cantor rules that social media comments were defamatory, rejecting defence arguments, revealing more details of Newbon’s conduct and circumstances potentially relevant to his death
More information has been revealed about the social media activities of Peter Newbon. Before his death in January 2022, Newbon was a director of the anti-Corbyn group ‘Labour against Antisemitism’ (LAAS) and a lecturer at Northumbria University.
In May 2021 Newbon tweeted a photo where renowned author Michael Rosen’s book ‘Bear Hunt’ had been photoshopped to appear as if Jeremy Corbyn was reading the notorious anti-Semitic forgery ‘The Protocols of Zion’ to a group of young children. Rosen described the photoshopping as a ‘loathsome and anti-Semitic’ thing to do. In response, December 2021 Newbon sued Rosen for defamation.
A court judgment now reveals that Newbon was himself being sued by James Wilson, a research student at Sheffield University, for defamation, harassment and wrongful use of private information. Late in the evening on August 2020 Newbon tweeted to his 3,000 followers a picture of Wilson with the words ‘This freak takes pictures of kids, apparently’ along with other allegations about Wilson.
Reports in the press and commentary on social media at the time of Newbon’s death suggested he was the victim of trolling on social media. The new information in the court finding makes clear there are aspects to the case that were either ignored by the media or else underplayed to the point of near-invisibility.
Skwawkbox understands that Newbon’s case against Rosen was set to fail and Newbon’s death happened shortly before a High Court hearing in that case.
The Daily Telegraph reported in January 2022 that Newbon was being represented by a barrister in a separate case and that this case was causing Newbon deep upset. It is not known if this is the case involving Wilson or if Newbon was involved in yet more litigation.
Press reports also indicated that Newbon was given a final warning by Northumbria University for his social media use. It is not known if this was because of his tweets to Rosen and Wilson or if he had targeted others on social media.
The emotional and financial strain of the litigation on Newbon must have been huge.
In a statement released to the media, Wilson pointed out that the matters had been resolved with Peter Newbon’s widow, but the two remaining defendants had pressed ahead with the litigation:
In August 2020 in the course of a debate on Twitter I linked to a piece in the London Review of Books by Sir Stephen Sedley, the retired Court of Appeal judge, on the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. The response of the second defendant (Pete Newbon) and third defendant (Eddy Cantor) was to publish private and/or defamatory information about me on Twitter. I brought a claim against them over these publications, and against the first defendant (James Mendelsohn) on the basis that he provided the information to them.
Any claims in defamation, harassment and misuse of private information could have settled in August 2020 for zero damages, zero costs and with undertakings to delete and not to re-publish the private and defamatory information. It is deeply regrettable the claims were not settled on that basis and it was necessary instead to issue a High Court claim. I have repeatedly tried to engage the defendants in mediation as an alternative to litigation but these attempts have been refused.
Following the tragic death of Dr Pete Newbon in January 2022, his widow and I reached an agreement resolving any claims against Dr Newbon’s estate. The other two defendants chose not to engage in sensible negotiations to settle all the claims at the same time. It is deeply regrettable that the other defendants have adopted an approach that has led to a published judgment that has placed information relating to Dr Newbon’s conduct towards me on Twitter in the public domain.
The judge has now decided as a preliminary issue that the defendants’ publications are defamatory, contrary to the defendants’ case. The judge has not decided whether the defendants’ publications are true or infringed my privacy or harassed me. The publications are not true and, if necessary, there will be a trial to establish that and also whether there has been harassment of me and misuse of my private information. The next stage is that the remaining two defendants have to file defences to my claims.
I have no other comment to make except to urge people to respect Dr Newbon’s family by avoiding speculation about the case.
The judge decided that describing someone as a ‘freak’ who ‘takes pictures of children’ did not carry implications of paedophilia – a finding that will surprise many – but rejected the defence’s claim that the online statements were not ‘defamatory at common law’. With the case against the Newbon estate settled, in the absence of a similar settlement by the remaining two defendants the case will go to trial to decide that issue in full as well as the matters of harassment and misuse of private information.
Dr Newbon’s death was used by the right and the ‘mainstream’ media to attack the much-loved children’s author Rosen, while the BBC did not name Newbon in its coverage nor mention that he was a director of the anti-left group LAAS. Skwawkbox highlighted a series of questions that needed to be answered and were not even being asked by the media and others who should have been asking. While some further light has been shed on events by the new legal finding most of those questions, listed below, remain outstanding and unresolved:
- why were Rosen’s attackers linking events eight months apart and doing so as if it was simply a given, when there were other factors that intervened?
- media coverage admitted that Newbon was also being sued by someone else at the same time as he was trying to sue Rosen. Why was there no mention of what he was being sued for, nor any consideration of any possible implications in Newbon’s tragic death?
- some of the media coverage mentions that Northumbria University gave Newbon a ‘final warning’ as a result of his tweet, as if that made Rosen to blame. ‘Final’ warnings are usually not ‘first warnings’. What else had Mr Newbon been warned for?
- why did most of the coverage state that Rosen had called Newbon an antisemite when this was not the case? Rosen had said that the photoshopping of an antisemitic text onto a Jewish author’s book was an antisemitic act
- why did the coverage fail to properly address the fact that Newbon was a director of LAAS?
- another LAAS director had tweeted to the BBC trying to have Rosen taken off air by the BBC, while yet another had tweeted mentioning the value of his house – an implication that they knew his home address – and implying that he may not have been able to control himself toward Rosen when he had seen him, if the LAAS director’s wife had not been present. Why did the media ignore this in their coverage?
- why did the media underemphasise the fact of Rosen’s Jewishness
- why did they fail to mention the long history of abuse by the rest of the pro-Israel right in and out of Labour toward Rosen – which includes verbally abusing him when he was an invited guest speaking to a parliamentary committee?
- and why have the media felt free to dismiss Rosen’s assessment of antisemitism in the image Newbon tweeted when they would never dream of doing the same to a right-winger and indeed have mobbed and hounded former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for even suggesting that some claims of antisemitism might have been merely exaggerated?
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