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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.