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 The framework legislation dates back to 1996, so it is arguable that even these are outdated parameters for our changed society.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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Listen: Schools Minister Nick Gibb gets SATs question for 11-year-olds wrong

Exams put too much pressure on children. And on the politicians who insist they don't put too much pressure on children.

As we know from today's news of a primary school exams boycott, or "kids' strike", it's tough being a schoolchild in Britain today. But apparently it's also tough being a Schools Minister.

Nick Gibb, Minister of State at the Department for Education, failed a SATs grammar question for 11-year-olds on the BBC's World at One today. Having spent all morning defending the primary school exams system - criticised by tens of thousands of parents for putting too much pressure on young children - he fell victim to the very test that has come under fire.

Listen here:

Martha Kearney: Let me give you this sentence, “I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner”. Is the word "after" there being used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition?

Nick Gibb: Well, it’s a proposition. “After” - it's...

MK: [Laughing]: I don’t think it is...

NG: “After” is a preposition, it can be used in some contexts as a, as a, word that coordinates a subclause, but this isn’t about me, Martha...

MK: No, I think, in this sentence it’s being used a subordinating conjunction!

NG: Fine. This isn’t about me. This is about ensuring that future generations of children, unlike me, incidentally, who was not taught grammar at primary school...

MK: Perhaps not!

NG: ...we need to make sure that future generations are taught grammar properly.

I'm a mole, innit.