Cricketer wins first Twitter libel case

Chris Cairns has been awarded £90,000 after he was defamed on Twitter. What are the implications?

We've already had the Twitter joke trial, and a company suing an employee for taking his Twitter followers with him when he left. Now, what is thought to be the first Twitter libel case has been heard in England.

Yesterday, the former New Zealand cricketer, Chris Cairns, was awarded damages of £90,000 by the High Court after suing over a defamatory tweet by Lalit Modi, the deposed Indian Premier League commissioner.

In a tweet in January 2010, Modi said that Cairns had been barred from the IPL due to "his past record in match-fixing". The comments were picked up by the popular cricket website CricInfo. After Cairns complained, CricInfo withdrew the article, apologised, and paid damages, but Modi has refused to apologise and maintained that his allegations were true.

It is worth noting that Modi did not have many followers on Twitter, meaning that the tweet was seen only by an estimated 65 people. The piece on Cricinfo was only online for a few hours, during which time it was seen by about 1,000 people.

While £90,000 might seem excessive for a libel seen by 1,100 people, the judge said that although publication was "limited" that did not mean that damages should be reduced, noting that "nowadays the poison tends to spread far more rapidly".

This appears to suggest not only that defamation on social media will be taken as seriously as that in the mainstream media, but also that the potential for that reputational damage to spread -- much greater in the digital age -- will be a consideration. Yet again, this case demonstrates the difficulty inherent in applying laws created in a bygone era to new technologies and media. Social media entails a pull between public and private spheres: Twitter users may not think about the fact that when they communicate with their followers, they are in fact are publishing their thoughts to the whole internet. As the law around this area becomes concretised, people will have to review how they present themselves.

Clearly, in this case defamation was committed: Modi was unable to provide any evidence to back up his comments. The judge noted the serious nature of the libel:

It is obvious that an allegation that a professional cricketer is a match-fixer goes to the core attributes of his personality and, if true, entirely destroys his reputation for integrity. It is as serious an allegation as anyone could make against a professional sportsman.

For Cairn, who has played 62 Tests and 215 one-day matches for New Zealand over his 17 year career, it is a relief: "Today's verdict lifts a dark cloud that has been over me for the past two years," he said in a statement. For many of those using Twitter -- a format which lends itself to rushed, thoughtless, and frequently vitriolic comments -- it has implications about what they say and how they say it.

Chris Cairns arrives at the High Court in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.