Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster has described the distressing impact of a tweet sent by a celebrity doctor about an unsubstantiated rumour of an affair.
During libel proceedings, the High Court in Belfast heard how Dr Christian Jessen’s initial tweet was sent on December 23 2019, and followed up with other “aggravating” tweets.
Mrs Foster told the court the incident came at a particularly stressful time when she was involved in talks to resurrect the power-sharing government in the region.
She said she felt the rumour of the affair with a close protection officer, which she described as having emerged online from anonymous accounts before the tweet by Dr Jessen – who is best known for the Embarrassing Bodies TV show on Channel 4 – was designed to destabilise her at a critical time.
“I think the attack on me personally and my marriage was meant to destabilise me at a very critical time,” she told the court.
“It was meant to destabilise me and thereby destabilise the negotiations as well. I have no proof of that, but I just think the timing of it is very significant given when it came.”
Mrs Foster said she had to sit down with her two elder children – then aged 17 and 19 – to talk to them about it, as well as her elderly mother, then aged 85, and assure them the rumour was not true, adding: “It was not a conversation that I would like to repeat.”
Asked how she felt about it, she replied: “Very very upset.
“Having to speak to my husband and explain to him what had happened, because this gentleman has a large following, so this was going to go quite far and wide,” she added.
“It was very humiliating, I have to say, to see that the relationship that is most important to me had been trashed, if you like, and got put out there in the public domain in that fashion.
“There wasn’t much sleep on the night of December 23.
“I spoke to my husband and we decided we needed to take action because this was only going to continue to grow. I therefore contacted my solicitor and asked him to take action in relation to the matter.”
Mrs Foster said the rumours went further, including that she had moved out of the family home and was living in a hotel, that her husband was living in a hotel, and the family had broken down.
“Those closest to me of course knew that it wasn’t true, but they were asked questions by other people,” she said.
The court heard that Dr Jessen responded to a tweet by solicitor Paul Tweed on December 24, putting him on notice about the content of the tweet, with the short form “lol”, which means “laughing out loud”.
He then responded to an email from the solicitor on January 7 and removed the tweet.
The court heard there was a “further aggravating tweet” on December 26 in which Dr Jessen wrote he was being compared to Barbra Streisand, saying: “this gay boys life cannot get any better”, which was accompanied by exclamation marks and a number of emojis.
This was described by Mrs Foster’s legal team as a “sneering tweet”.
However, Dr Jessen has not responded to correspondence since, the court heard.
Speaking about the contact with Dr Jessen, David Ringland QC, acting for Mrs Foster, told the court: “I suspected he had more service than anybody in the history in these courts in terms of the number and manner of service.
“In terms of the service of each of these steps, the same approach has been taken by the defendant as he has taken to every aspect of this case – in other words, head in the sand, completely ignoring, not responding.”
Dr Jessen was described in court as a medical doctor who practices as a GP on Harley Street in London. He has 311,000 followers on Twitter.
His initial tweet on December 23 was retweeted more than 500 times, as well as prompting a thread of discussion described in court as “pretty unpleasant”, before it was deleted.
Mr Ringland said: “We are talking about huge publication in this case.”
Mr Justice McAlinden said he will produce a written judgment on the matter.
“Obviously I am going to have to reserve my decision in this case and given a written judgment,” he said.
“I will try to get that dealt with as quickly as possible because I think that this has been hanging over Mrs Foster for long enough and the defendant’s approach to this matter has extended the time during which it is hanging over her head, so I will attempt to deal with this matter as a matter of urgency, but it will take some time to ensure that I deal with it properly.
“I will give a written decision as soon as possible.”