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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.