Libel more damaging if it has potential to "go viral", court rules

The case could have a large effect on freedom of speech on sites like Twitter.

Thanks to a recent Court of Appeal ruling, Twitter could soon be far from a realm for the free expression we are supposedly entitled to as citizens of the EU. The Times last week published a law report from the case of Chris Cairns, New Zealand cricketer who was falsely accused of match fixing on Twitter. (False accusations on Twitter - very 2012). What’s interesting about this judgement is that damages were upheld not only due to the false nature of what was claimed, but because of the rumour’s potential to have gone viral. Ergo, the more widely spread the defamatory statement, the more damages should be awarded.

If this judgement is latched on to and the case ultimately sets a precedent, it is unclear what method would be used to decide on the level of damages. The ubiquitous nature of the internet and Twitter in particular means that word spreads, usually beyond an individual’s control, making this seem an obscure way of assessing damages. Perhaps the claimant could get a pound for every retweet?

The basis behind the ruling makes sense; it was, after all, taken from a dictum in the 1990 case of Slipper v BBC that stated “defamatory statements are objectionable not least because of their propensity to percolate through underground channels and contaminate hidden springs”. The problem is that in 1990 the web was only just taking off, and modern social networking was decades away. The principle has been taken and distorted to apply to an entirely different world, where consequences are certainly more severe.

The internet is modern society’s vehicle for free speech, and is essential for a democratic society. Jonathan Coad previously raised the question in his recent article for the New Statesman whether or not it is right to regulate social networks in the same way as national publications. The framework legislation dates back to 1996, so it is arguable that even these are outdated parameters for our changed society.

Equilibrium must be achieved. There is a balance between the Article 10 right to free speech and the equally important entitlement to a fair reputation, but with England being renowned for its exceedingly claimant-friendly libel laws it is worrying that this judgement may tip the balance and ultimately end up deterring free expression across social networking sites.

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There’s no other explanation for Boris Johnson – he must be a Russian spy

When you look back over Johnson’s journalistic career, it soon becomes apparent that he was in the right place at the right time too often for it all to have been a coincidence.

I had a hunch some time ago, but a source very close to the Federal Security Service strongly implied it during an odd meeting that we recently had at a hotel in Charing Cross, London: Boris Johnson is an agent of deep Russian penetration. Obviously his first name is a bluff – Boris the Bear has been hiding in plain view of millions of us Britons. I have no idea when he was recruited (on this matter, my informant remained obstinately silent), but if we look back over the Foreign Secretary’s career, the evidence is clear.

Take his well-known inability to keep his trousers on. It might be imagined that a bedheaded Don Juan was the last person you’d entrust to enter the “wilderness of mirrors”, as the secret world is often euphemised. But if Boris were a Russian agent, his physical jerkiness would make perfect sense. All intelligence agencies use blackmail to control their assets and honeytraps are the preferred way of doing it.

However, what if you instructed your agent to keep his muzzle more or less permanently in the honey jar? Under such circumstances, it would be altogether impossible for MI5 to compromise him: “Boris shags secretary/colleague/newspaper editor”, say, would hardly be news.

Speaking of news, when you look back over Johnson’s journalistic career, it soon becomes apparent that he was in the right place at the right time too often for it all to have been a coincidence. His stint at the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels bureau, for instance, began in the year that the Berlin Wall fell. Johnson’s articles, in which he sniped consistently at the European Commission, helped to exacerbate the tensions between Tory Eurosceptics and Europhiles – fissures which, as the world has turned, have grown, precipitating the sort of fragmentation that the Kremlin’s spymasters seek to create in the West.

With my novelistic hat on, I can say that Johnson’s literary style has always bothered me. Replete with recondite yet poorly understood terms and half-digested quotations, his prose has the pretentious clunkiness you would expect from someone who isn’t writing in their first language. My suspicions, inchoate for years, have now acquired palpable form: Johnson doesn’t write any of this magoosalum. It’s all typed up by Russian hacks, leaving him free to shin up the greasy pole . . .

And slide along the Emirati-sponsored zip wire, as well. It has always seemed strange, Johnson’s apparently wilful determination to place himself in undignified positions. But again, it makes sense when you know that it is part of an elaborate act, intended to subvert our ancient institutions and the dignity of our high offices of state.

The dribs and drabs of distinctly Russian racism – the “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles” that fall from his permanently pink lips – are yet more evidence of the long hours he has spent being debriefed. An agent of deep penetration will live for years under so-called natural cover, a sleeper, waiting to be activated by his masters.

But it’s predictable that while waiting, Johnson’s handlers should have instructed him to throw suspicion off by adopting contrarian positions – his call for demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in London to protest against the bombing of Aleppo is entirely consistent with this – and it has also had the beneficial effect of further emphasising British weakness and impotence.

You might have thought that Vladimir Putin (who apparently refers to Johnson affectionately, in private, as “Little Bear” or “Pooh”) would want one of his most precious assets to shin right to the top of that greasy pole. Not so, and the debacle surrounding the Tories’ post-Brexit night of the long knives, which was revealed in Tim Shipman’s new book, was in reality a complex manoeuvre designed expressly to place Putin’s man (or bear) in the Foreign Office. Johnson’s flip-flopping over whether to come out for Leave or Remain makes no sense if we consider him to be a principled and thoughtful politician, loyal to his constituency – but becomes understandable once we see the strings and realise that he’s nothing but a marionette, twisting and turning at his puppeteers’ prompting.

After all, prime ministers can be rather impotent figures, whereas foreign secretaries bestride the world stage. No, the only way that Putin can be sure to have his way – bombing Aleppo back to the Stone Age, subverting Ukrainian independence – is by having his beloved Pooh bumbling about at summit meetings. Think back to Johnson’s tenure as mayor of London and the vast river of Russian lucre that flowed into the City. The Kremlin has also been able to manipulate errant oligarchs as if they, too,
were marionettes.

And now comes the final proof, as if any were needed: the government’s decision to support a third runway for Heathrow. Will Johnson resign over this matter of deepest principle? Will he truly represent his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituents who labour night and day under a toxic smir to the accompaniment of jet howls? Will he hell. There will be a few of his characteristically garbled statements on the matter and then he will fall silent. You all know that slightly sleepy yet concentrating expression that comes over his face when he thinks that the cameras are pointed elsewhere? That’s when Johnson is receiving his instructions through a concealed earpiece.

Should we worry that our Foreign Secretary is in the control of a sinister and manipulative foreign demagogue? Well, probably not too much. After all, think back to previous incumbents: great statesmen such as Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett and William Hague. Do you really imagine that any of them struck fear deep into the heart of the Russian military-industrial complex? 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage