Lessons from the death threat against Gina Miller

Viscount Rhodri Phillipps’ malicious Facebook comments are leading him to imprisonment, and shows that the public scrutiny of a high profile figure has legal and moral limits, writes Jennifer Agate

At what point do you draw the line between the lawful scrutiny inherent with life in the public eye and illegal abuse?  When it causes serious harm to your reputation or, more seriously, legitimate fears as to safety.

On 13 July 2017, Rhodri Philipps was sentenced to 12 weeks imprisonment, convicted of two charges of sending malicious communications, one in respect of Brexit challenger Gina Miller.  In his defence, the Viscount argued that ‘If you’re in the public eye, people are going to say nasty things about you. It’s the rough and tumble of public life.’  Saying “nasty things” is one thing.  Typing ‘£5,000 for the first person to “accidentally” run over’ Ms Miller, as the Viscount did, is quite another. No one wants to pursue the exposure of criminal proceedings, but they exist for just those circumstances when the civil remedies fail to provide sufficient protection.

The Viscount also contended that his Facebook comments were ‘meant to be a form of satire, a literary technique, iterated in my personal style, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but is understood and accepted by everyone who knows me’.

Just last month actor Johnny Depp was forced to apologise for ‘jokingly’ querying ‘When was the last time an actor assassinated a president’. A joke it may have been, but given the precedents what is to stop one rogue reader with a gun taking it seriously?  Depp knew his words would be controversial: ‘This is going to be in the press, and it will be horrible…’ he said at the time. It could legitimately be said that those in the public eye have a duty to carefully consider what they say, subject of course to grappling with the right of freedom of expression.

The line between Depp’s statement and those made by Rhodri Philipps is the capacity for menace. The current president has sufficient existing reasons for the highest level security that Depp’s comments were never going to cause him additional fear or apprehension. By contrast, Ms Miller is said to have invested in £60,000 worth of security as a direct result of the backlash she experienced on social media.  She told the Court she found the posts ‘genuinely shocking, to the extent of feeling ‘violated.

So when should those in the public eye stop feeling the need to demonstrate a sense of humour and act to protect their privacy, reputation and safety? When should their advisers step in and ensure that they take threats seriously? There will never be a black and white answer.

Sometimes you have to go with gut instinct (or that of your advisers). To refashion Joseph Heller: just because you’re a public figure, it doesn’t mean they can come after you.

Jennifer Agate, Senior Associate – Foot Anstey