Brands in the food and drink sector are highly familiar with the use of social media to promote products and to create engaging marketing. This case serves as another reminder – if one was needed – that defamatory comments made on social media may lead to liability, and significant awards of damages. It is particularly significant in showing that the level of damages may be increased considerably when such comments are made repeatedly, over a prolonged period of time.
On 25 March 2012, the Sunday Times published an article which alleged that Peter Cruddas (at the time the co-Treasurer of the Conservative Party), had breached various provisions of “electoral law” during an undercover meeting; an allegation which was repeated by the Independent on 9 June. Mark Adams (a lobbyist) repeated these allegations online through his blogs and a series of Tweets.
Over the course of several months, Mr Adams repeatedly called for the arrest of Mr Cruddas, and taunted Mr Cruddas for his failure to commence a libel action against him (which he finally did, on 26 July). The comments were made via 12 Tweets (Mr Adams had over 700 followers), on 9 blog comments and in an ITV interview.
During the course of proceedings, the Metropolitan Police confirmed that there was no evidence of any criminal conduct on the part of Mr Cruddas, and a full retraction and apology from the Independent followed. A libel claim against the Sunday Times is due to start in June 2013. After being shown a transcript of the meeting that took place between Mr Cruddas and the Sunday Times journalist, Mr Adams did not continue defending the libel action. However, he chose not to issue any apology, nor did he withdraw all of the statements that he had made. Mr Justice Eady awarded Mr Cruddas £45,000 in damages, along with costs.
The use of ‘real time’ commentary or promotions, via Twitter feeds and blogging websites, are becoming increasingly commonplace amongst brand owners. Any guidance relating to the administration of these social media platforms is therefore highly valuable. This case is one of only a limited number which deal with defamatory comments involving Twitter and other social media. Although in this instance the conduct of Mr Adams was so reckless as to be characterised as “puerile”, it shows that care should be taken when making statements where the substance has not been verified.
The intention of damages in cases of defamation is to compensate the affected party rather than penalise the defendant. Therefore, where a claimant has already achieved some level of vindication, this can have a direct effect on the amount awarded. Here, however, although Eady J recognised that there were external mitigating factors, such as the Independent’s retraction and payment of damages, he said their effect was modest because of Mr Adams’ refusal to acknowledge that the claims he had made were false.
Eady J gave particular weight to the fact that Mr Adams had continued his vilification of Mr Cruddas over a prolonged period and, despite receiving confirmation of Mr Cruddas’ innocence, had not removed all of the offending posts. The intensity with which Mr Adams conducted his campaign was seen by Eady J as going to the “core of Mr Cruddas’ professional reputation and integrity” and said that:
“Mr Adams has done himself no favours in the conduct of this litigation, apparently taking every opportunity between March and September to aggravate his original publications – and to do so again on a privileged occasion in November.”
Set against that, the fact that Mr Adams was an individual (with limited means), and that many people following the events were likely to have concluded that Mr Cruddas was innocent, were both factors which went towards limiting the amount of damages awarded. But, along with the recent case of Cairns v Modi, this case is an example of the court taking the defendant’s conduct as a key factor in increasing the damages that would have otherwise been awarded.
A final point to note is that although the Tweets were clearly significant when assessing the harm done, it is not clear just how significant. Eady J saw it as “artificial and confusing” to separate the award into different elements and held that the damages represented compensation for all of the publications made by Mr Adams.