Not So Tweet

It really won’t be.
Not when you’re looking at the prospect of having to shell out potentially huge amounts of money, for a careless comment (or the repetition of someone else’s careless comment) of 144 characters, or less.
But that’s precisely the scenario facing those individuals who Tweeted or re-Tweeted remarks last week concerning the totally false allegations of child sex-abuse that were leveled against senior British Conservative (Tory) Party figure, Lord McAlpine.
They will now have to wait, to see what action (if any) is taken against them, by Lord McAlpine and his legal team – especially in light of the new relationship that is taking shape, between Twitter and the law.
The roots of this go back to a UK legal verdict of March, this year.
The Chris Cairns Libel Case
On Monday 26 March 2012, a British judge awarded £90,000 Sterling ($140,000) in libel damages to New Zealand cricket player Chris Cairns – who claimed that he had been defamed in a 24-word Twitter message by Lalit Modi, the ex-chairman of the Indian Premier League or IPL.
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, apologized, and paid damages, but Modi refused, maintaining that his allegations were true.
Having seen the Tweet, a journalist from CricInfo responded with a request for confirmation.
Modi was unable to provide any evidence to back up his comments.
Adjudicating in the case, Justice David Bean 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.”
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 anywhere between 450 and 1500 individuals.
Nonetheless, Justice Bean noted that:
“…although publication was limited, that does not mean that damages should be reduced to trivial amounts.”
He then quoted another decision made in a 1935 case, where it was said:
“It is precisely because the ‘real’ damage cannot be ascertained and established that the damages are at large. It is impossible to track the scandal, to know what quarters the poison may reach…”
Besides the $140,000 (or 90,000 pounds) awarded in damages, Modi was also ordered to pay $635,000 in legal costs. Reportedly, the judge says that the defendant can appeal the amount of damages, but not the question of liability.
Clearly, this verdict highlights the dangers of harmful speech on a social media platform that is enjoyed throughout the world.
In the meantime, the UK suddenly becomes a place to watch for future Twitter defamation cases.
Like The McAlpine Case?
Quite possibly.
Lord McAlpine’s solicitor Andrew Reid has pledged to sue everyone who Tweeted his client’s name in relation to mistaken sexual abuse allegations.
The lawyer had been instructed by former Tory treasurer Lord McAlpine to negotiate a compensation settlement from the BBC for the Newsnight programme that linked him to historic child sex abuse in a North Wales care home.
This he did, and quite emphatically, too.
The BBC announced on the evening of 15 November that it had settled libel claims brought against it by Lord McAlpine over the Newsnight broadcast.
The damages, agreed 13 days after the broadcast, total £185,000 plus costs.
Reid has now turned his attention to those who named his client, in cyberspace.
He told the BBC’s World at One program that he had a list of people who had identified his client in the mainstream media and online, who he would be contacting and taking legal action against. He added that some prominent people had already apologized.
Reid said: “We know who you are and what you have done. It’s easier to come forward and see us and apologize and arrange to settle with us because, in the long run, this is the cheapest and best way to bring this matter to an end.”
Reid claimed that the public is fed up of “trial by Twitter” and said: “Very sadly we’re going to have to take action against a lot of people. It’s a very long list and there are other broadcasters and we will be getting to them.”
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 damage to people’s reputations to spread (much greater in the digital media) will be a consideration.
For many of those using Twitter – a format which lends itself to hasty, unconsidered, and frequently vitriolic comments – it has implications about what they say, and how they say it.
A sobering thought.
And one I’ll leave you with.
BTW, you can follow my Tweets (or not), @desnnr, on Twitter.
Where I’m occasionally amusing, but never, ever defamatory. I swear.