Julie Burchill agrees to pay ‘substantial damages’ to Ash Sarkar over social media posts

Columnist posts apology over attacks on Muslim journalist

Joe Sommerlad
Tuesday 16 March 2021 15:06
<p>Julie Burchill</p>

Julie Burchill

The Sunday Telegraph and Spectator columnist Julie Burchill has been forced to apologise to Ash Sarkar and pay “substantial damages” over a series of social media posts in which she alleged the latter was an Islamist extremist who worshipped a paedophile.

“Although it was not my intention, I accept that my statements were defamatory of Ms Sarkar and caused her very substantial distress,” Ms Burchill wrote in a statement posted to Twitter and Facebook on Tuesday in which she accepted that the offending posts “included racist and misogynist comments”.

“I do not believe, have never believed and never intended to make any allegation that Ms Sarkar is a promoter, supporter and/or sympathiser of Islamists or fundamentalist terrorism or to suggest that Ms Sarkar condones paedophilia in any way.

“I deeply regret having reacted in the way I did. I accept that I should have behaved better. On reflection, I accept that I misjudged the situation, and made statements that simply are not true,” she wrote.

The columnist had attacked Ms Sarkar on 13 December 2020 after the latter had criticised Ms Burchill’s friend, the columnist Rod Liddle, for a Spectator article he had written in 2012 in which he suggested the reason he could never have been a teacher was that he “could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids”.

Retaliating on Mr Liddle’s behalf, Ms Burchill accused the Muslim writer of “worshipping a paedophile” in reference to the Prophet Muhammad.

The columnist then invited her followers on Facebook to “wade in on Twitter” and attack Ms Sarkar, denouncing “the Islamists” and “nonces” and writing a graphic poem imagining her target engaged in “a gender fluid threesome with Marine Le Pen”, the French far-right politician.

She also “liked” posts saying that Ms Sarkar should kill herself and suggesting she had endured female genital mutilation.

Ms Sarkar, a senior editor at Novara Media, was represented by Rahman Lowe Solicitors and Doughty Street Chambers in the ensuing defamation case, in which she argued Ms Burchill had “combined two of the most damaging tropes of anti-Muslim hate”, had made “repeated sexual and degrading comments” and had chosen to invoke her heritage to stoke prejudice in an argument that had “nothing to do with Islam”.

Responding to Ms Burchill’s apology in an op-ed for The Guardian on Tuesday, Ms Sarkar described the many offensive posts she had received in response to the affair and revealed the toll it had taken on her wellbeing.

“The intensity of the abuse, along with Burchill’s continuing derogatory posts about me, severely affected my mental health. I couldn’t sleep, and had bouts of trembling and heart palpitations. For the first time in my life, I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication,” she wrote.

Ms Sarkar also used the editorial to highlight the prevalence of racism in the British media, writing in the week following Ian Murray’s resignation as executive director of the Society of Editors after his dismissive reaction to comments made by Meghan Markle in her Oprah Winfrey interview about the issue provoked an outcry.

“Those at the top of our industry have persistently drawn a veil of silence around the bullying tactics that drum black and brown women out of public life”, Ms Sarkar wrote.

“We cannot claim to have a truly free press as long as those who tacitly encourage and facilitate the harassment of women of colour remain sheltered within the media.”

She previously told The Independent of the incident with Ms Burchill: “I was appalled by [her] comments when I first read them, and it was quite upsetting to see that it’s not the first time she’s made derogatory insinuations about my faith.

“There’ve been all sorts of hateful comments from others that have followed, and I don’t think it's right that ethnic and religious minorities are subject to this kind of abuse just for putting their head above the parapet and offering an opinion.”

Before the controversy erupted, Ms Burchill - who has previously written for The Independent - had, ironically, been due to publish a book entitled Welcome to the Woke Trials: How #Identity Killed Progressive Politics.

The project is described as “part-memoir, part-indictment” and concerns her falling victim to “the outrage mob” over an article she wrote for The Observer in 2013 that was removed from the newspaper’s website after it attracted criticism for its inclusion of transphobic language.

But her publisher, the Hachette imprint Little, Brown, dropped the book on 15 December saying she had “crossed a line with regard to race and religion” and that her comments towards Ms Sarkar regarding Islam were “not defensible from a moral or intellectual standpoint”.

The book has since been optioned by Edinburgh-based Stirling Publishing.

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