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Law Column: Careless talk costs lives

This phrase was, of course, a piece of World War 2 propaganda advertising which sought to remind Britons that there were spies who might pick up gossip and “secrets” by listening in to conversations. Fougasse, one of the country’s then foremost cartoonists and a regular contributor to Punch magazine, drew a memorable cartoon as part of the campaign depicting people giving away secrets in everyday situations, for example sitting on the bus, failing to notice caricatures of Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering sitting behind them.

Seventy years on the phrase has a different meaning to all of us who tweet, particularly journalists. Tweeting is essentially a process of conveying a message not orally but in writing-electronically. You have no more than 140 characters to tweet. If defamatory it is a libel, whereas the gossip on the train as depicted by Fougasse is slander. The Sally Bercow tweet is already part of tweeting legend and illustrates the dangers. Just seven words, a question mark and some quotation marks and asterisks proved very expensive. Careless talk doesn’t cost lives but it could cost you your job, so it pays to take care what you tweet.

Fortunately, the current police investigations over abusive tweets are not likely to affect regional journalists, though the application of contempt law to tweeting remains an issue.

The great advantage of twitter is the immediacy of communication, and for journalists, it is useful for getting in with the news first. It is important to remember, however, that your tweet will be picked up by your followers and you may have a lot of them. Even if you don’t it can still be expensive because of the foreseeable consequences. Likewise, remember that as a journalist you will be a follower of many people’s tweets and may be republishing what they say.

With the next Ashes test match round the corner a cricketing tweet tale from the Libel Long Room is appropriate. In January 2010, Lalit Modi, formerly Commissioner of the Indian Premier League, alleged that Chris Cairns, the well known New Zealand cricketer, had been excluded from a forthcoming IPL tournament because of his “past record in match fixing”. The tweet was removed after 16 hours but not before his followers had re-tweeted and a journalist from Cricinfo had obtained confirmation and republished the allegation. Cairns sued for libel. The judge found that the allegation was totally untrue and awarded Cairns £75,000 which was increased by aggravating features to £90,000. Cricinfo sensibly settled out of court for £7,000.

Though the original tweet was received by a limited number of followers in the UK – approximately 65 – the judge, Mr Justice Bean, quoted Lord Atkin from a 1935 case: “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”.  He added: “That remains true in the 21st century, except that nowadays the poison tends to spread”.  His remark proved to be prescient given the subsequent Bercow case, which demonstrates the dangers of wrongly identifying an innocent person as a paedophile in a tweet.

A tweet is, by its very nature, instant, and can be re-tweeted just as instantly. Just make sure that before you open your beak, you think before you tweet.