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.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition