A TV doctor has told how a complete mental breakdown was partly responsible for him not realising First Minister Arlene Foster’s libel action against him was going ahead.
Dr Christian Jessen told Belfast High Court yesterday he had left his job early last year and had avoided all television and newspaper coverage due to the effect it had on his mental health.
He also offered a litany of reasons that correspondence relating to the legal action, including emails, letters and process servers attending his residence, failed to reach him.
Mrs Foster took the case against the reality television presenter, best known for Channel 4 programmes like Embarrassing Bodies, after a tweet he made in reference to her on December 23 2019.
It repeated untrue allegations he said he had read that Mrs Foster had an affair with a close protection police officer.
Dr Jessen has over 300,000 followers on the social media platform and his post received 3,500 likes and was retweeted more than 500 times.
It was eventually taken down on January 7 2020 after Dr Jessen received legal advice.
He told the court that he did not want to cause the DUP leader “any distress” and that his tweet was motivated by a desire to call out what he called any possible hypocrisy given the party’s views on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Dr Jessen said the matter had come to his attention via Twitter and what he called “online articles”.
“There was extensive online comments about this rumour,” he told the court.
“It wasn’t just one or two, there were many hundreds of tweets going back quite some time about this rumour.
“It seems too prolifically talked about to have been conjured from thin air.
“The comments and articles that were around at the time — it was covered in a number of disconnected websites.”
Dr Jessen said he concluded the rumour was true due to the volume of posts he saw about it.
“My issue was more the possible hypocrisy behind it,” he said.
“Given the extent of the rumours and given the DUP’s stance on things like equal marriage and abortion, I felt strongly that if there was a possibility that these were true, this is a public figure that was answerable to her public.
“If there were any truth to these, that hypocrisy needs to be pointed out and accounted for.”
Cross-examining, Mrs Foster’s representative David Ringland QC asked did he “understand how shatteringly damaging it is for a happily married woman to be accused of adultery?”
“I’m sure it was very unpleasant for her and I would not wish to cause her any distress,” Dr Jessen replied
Mr Ringland said on the basis of online information, Dr Jessen “decided it was perfectly appropriate to Tweet to your 300,000 plus followers disgusting suggestions or assertions against the First Minister of Northern Ireland”.
He said the court had already found it was “a disgusting tweet of great significance”.
“Can we take it most of your tweets don’t involve trashing a senior public figure’s reputation?,” Mr Ringland asked.
“Your tweet, which is grossly offensive to the First Minister, grossly insulting, grossly defamatory, can we take it wasn’t your normal fare for sending out tweets?”
Dr Jessen said he hoped his other tweets did not contain similar content, but he had not reviewed them.
With no defence entered in the lawsuit, Mrs Foster has already secured judgment in default.
The level of payout the DUP leader will receive as a result of the case has not yet been decided.
The reality TV star told the court that mental health problems were one of the reasons he did not know the hearing was going ahead.
Dr Jessen emotionally revealed that rapidly declining mental health was behind his decision to leave his job shortly before the tweet was posted in December 2019. Months later he decided to move back in with his parents to help his recovery.
However, he told the court that his condition had now improved to the point he had taken a job involved in the NHS’s coronavirus vaccine programme rollout and was in the process of moving out of his parents’ home.
Dr Jessen said he believed all court proceedings had been stalled as a direct results of the pandemic and he hadn’t watched the news or read a newspaper in 12 months.
“I genuinely believed that at the time,” he told the court.
“I have tried very hard not to, I haven’t watched the news on television I have watched Netflix and things like that but not current affairs.
“I’ve had to take some considerable time off because of ill health and there are various aspects to that, but one was really quite serious mental health problems, the news hasn’t been at all encouraging or cheerful over the past year and I’d find it very triggering to those mental health problems that I had.”
He was challenged by Mr Ringland who said that during the period in question he continued to use Twitter and also hosted a podcast.
Mr Ringland also noted the high profile Johnny Depp-Amber Heard court case had taken place during this period, but Dr Jessen said he was unaware of it.
Dr Jessen contended that despite a number of attempts to reach him he had received very little correspondence about the case and did not know it was going ahead.
He told the court some emails had been sent to a work email he no longer had access too after he left his job in early January 2020, while other materials sent to his home address by first class post had not arrived.
Dr Jessen said he had been living with his parents from March 2020 and when he checked the property this week he found only two pieces of correspondence relating to the case.
He also said information handed by process servers to concierges at his home had not reached him, despite assurances from the concierges it would.
Presiding, Justice McAlinden suggested that his mental health problems could be contributing to his failure to recall exactly what information he had received about the case and when, while Dr Jessen accepted it was possible he said he did not believe this to be the case.
In his final remarks to Dr Jessen, Mr Ringland said his evidence to the court had been “prevalent with lies” and he had been “caught out overtly on a number of occasions”.
“Your answers to most of the questions on service appear to bear no relationship to any reality that anyone in this court has ever encountered,” he said.
“Namely, one the postal service doesn’t work so far as you are concerned, two the concierge service that you repose extreme confidence in doesn’t work properly, three for reasons there’s been no real explanation about an active email address is something you haven’t been accessing; and so on, and so on, and so on.”
In her evidence Mrs Foster said she was left humiliated by the unfounded rumour which “trashed” her 25-year marriage.
She described how the false claims inflicted deep hurt at a time when she was involved in talks to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
The distress caused to her family was compounded by the posting being made two days before Christmas.
Mrs Foster detailed how she was forced to discuss the matter with her husband and children.
She said “it was almost as if this cut to the very core of my life.”
Justice McAlinden adjourned the case for an update on what evidence remained to be heard on Tuesday.