by Rebecca Black, PA
Northern Ireland’s First Minister has described the distressing impact a tweet of an unsubstantiated rumour by a celebrity doctor had on her and her family.
A libel hearing at the High Court in Belfast heard how Dr Christian Jessen tweeted on December 23 2019 that Arlene Foster had had an affair.
Mrs Foster told the court it came at a particularly stressful time when she was involved in talks to resurrect the power sharing government in the region.
“It was very humiliating to see that the relationship that’s most important to me had been trashed if you like and put out there in the public domain in that fashion,” she told the court.
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.
“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," she told the court.
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."
The court heard that Dr Jessen responded to an email from Mrs Foster’s solicitor and removed the tweet on January 7.
However, he has not responded to correspondence since.
David Ringland QC, acting for Mrs Foster, told the court: “I suspected he (Dr Jessen) 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.”
Mr Justice McAlinden said he will produce a written judgment in 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.”
First Minister Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster has said she gets “very distressed” when she is referred to as homophobic.
Mrs Foster was quizzed on her views during today's libel proceedings.
The DUP had in the past opposed attempts to allow same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
It was extended to the region following legislation at Westminster while Stormont was suspended.
The DUP opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds, arguing that marriage should be between a man and a woman and that civil partnerships were already available to same-sex couples.
Mrs Foster, who leads the party, was asked during proceedings at the High Court in Belfast if she took the “traditional view of marriage” that it is a union between a man and a woman.
“Yes, I take the traditional view, the church-based view, yes,” she responded.
Asked if she was homophobic, Mrs Foster responded “no”.
Mr Justice McAlinden said there is a “big difference between holding strong religious views about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and having an irrational hatred of homosexuals”.
Mrs Foster agreed: “There is, absolutely.
“I get very distressed when people do actually call me a homophobe because that’s something I am not.
“I do think, unfortunately, in politics sometimes, if you take a nuanced position on one issue it becomes a much wider piece, and that’s unfortunately the case – if you cannot explain it in 140 characters in today’s society then it must be true – it is simply not true.
“I have many friends who are homosexual, they know my views on same-sex marriage, and in any event, same-sex marriage is now the law here in Northern Ireland and has to be upheld.
“I have never in my own political utterances said anything in connection with people who are homosexual and that’s why I do get quite upset when people call me a homophobe.”