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 The framework legislation dates back to 1996, so it is arguable that even these are outdated parameters for our changed society.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.

Photograph: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

4 ways to end freedom of movement (and try to dodge a hard Brexit)

A lot depends on the details. 

There are few subjects as explosive in Britain today as immigration. Labour is split between those who see anti-immigrant feeling as racism by stealth, and those who consider it a legitimate response to a changing labour market. The Tories, too, are divided between social conservatives worried about culture and communities, and economic liberals who believe everything must be done to preserve the single market.

If David Cameron hadn’t decided to hold an EU referendum, perhaps this debate would have rumbled on before either rolling towards an overwhelming question or being outstripped by events. But he did, and Brexit happened. 

Now, most political realists agree, there will have to be some kind of policy change on immigration. But apart from turning the lights out at border control and bracing ourselves for a hard Brexit, what are the options? Here are some of the ideas on the table:

1. A points-based system

This idea has been bandied around for years, with “points-based system” usually coming straight after “Australian”. The principle is simple enough – aspiring immigrants gain points depending on their education, age, fluency in English and work experience. Of course, the Australian immigration system also involves refusing to let desperate people on boats land, and instead leaving them to rot on islands like Nauru. However, the points-based system is also used in Canada, and *news klaxon* the UK already uses elements of a points-based system for immigration from outside the EU. 

If you’re Theresa May, the main argument against a points-based system is, apparently, that it lets in too many talented immigrants. If you’re the NHS, it can be an obstacle to hiring staff who are desperately needed. And if you’re a Brexit negotiator, since a points-based system effectively eliminates working-class EU immigrants, it is going to make your job very hard indeed.

2. Regional recruitment

In Canada, each province can set their own immigration policy, within certain boundaries, by nominating individuals for permanent residence. So British Columbia is willing to nominate healthcare professionals and post-graduate students who attend a provincial university. The Yukon, a remote province with just one city, nominates entrepreneurs.

But there’s the thing. Canada is the second biggest country in the world, and the population is half that of the UK. Breaking the rules takes effort. Chris Murray, a research fellow at the IPPR, said: “Everyone’s afraid it is a backdoor to London. You say you’re working in Cumbria, and you move straight down to London.”

3. An emergency brake

Back in 2014, the then-Prime Minister David Cameron floated the idea of an “emergency brake” on EU immigration. Under this system, which is based on existing EU law, free movement could continue but the Government would reserve the right to halt it in certain circumstances. As the FT noted: “The rules are supposed to deal with situations such as acts of war or volcanic eruptions, not the movement of fruit pickers from eastern Europe.”

After the volcanic eruption of Brexit, though, the IPPR now thinks an emergency brake could be Britain’s best bet. Murray told The Staggers: “It is quite targeted, and also it is much more likely to get support from European partners.” But remember, Cameron tried to negotiate an emergency brake before. And failed. 

4. Work permits

If you subscribe to the idea Brexit was about wages, and not xenophobia, you might be inclined to support a system of work permits. Under this system, freedom of movement could continue for students, families and retirees, but workers would have to obtain work permits. Home secretary Amber Rudd has said of the idea that it “has value”. 

The problem is, both Britain’s Brexiteers and the EU’s negotiators can count. Hand out work permits to everyone, and immigration levels remain high. Tighten the rules, and that’s the end of freedom of movement. It’s hard to see either side giving the Government such an easy way out.