Tweeters beware. Lord McAlpine, a retired British politician, has received another libel settlement over tweets wrongly linking him to child sex abuse.
Last year, McAlpine was wrongly linked to a Nov. 2 BBC report about allegations of child sex abuse against an unnamed politician, as iMediaEthics has written. While McAlpine wasn’t named, it was widely suggested on Twitter that he was the politician in question. The man who made the allegations of abuse, Steve Messham, ended up apologizing because of a police mix-up. Messham had, decades ago, identified a photo as his abuser, and the police said it was McAlpine, but they were wrong. Only after the BBC report went live did Messham reportedly learn that McAlpine wasn’t the person he identified as his abuser.
The BBC apologized for its report and paid McAlpine a libel settlement of almost $300,000 over its report. The BBC’s director-general, George Entwistle, also resigned over the failed program. ITV also made a libel settlement with McAlpine after one of its programs listed McAlpine as an “alleged abuser” on air.
McAlpine announced plans to sue people who tweeted that he was the abuser. This latest settlement, made this month, involved comedian Alan Davies.
Davies, who is a “panellist on BBC2’s QI,” had tweeted last year “Any clues as to who the Tory paedophile is?” and “retweeted a response naming McAlpine,” the Guardian reported. While Davies “swiftly tweeted an apology,” he still ended up being sued by McAlpine for libel.
Davies had more than 400,000 Twitter followers when he tweeted the messages, the BBC reported McAlpine’s lawyer Sir Edward Garnier QC said.
The Guardian and Independent quoted from a statement from Davies via his lawyers at Harbottle & Lewis, saying that not only did he apologize on Twitter to attempt to resolve the matter, he also “made voluntary donations to the NSPCC totalling £13,000.” Despite that, Davies said he saw stories “saying I was going to be sued for £200,000,” so he agreed to settle the action. Davies went on:
“I offered to pay £15,000 in damages plus a contribution to costs and agreed to make today’s statement in court. From my own experience, I am able to warn others of the dangers of retweeting.”
Davies settled with McAlpine to the tune of “£15,000 in damages”– or almost $25,000. According to the Guardian, McAlpine is giving the money to the Royal Chelsea Hospital.
Also this month, McAlpine’s “libel action against Sally Bercow has been formally settled,” the Guardian reported in a separate story. Bercow’s husband is the UK Speaker of the House of Commons.
As iMediaEthics wrote in May, UK judge Michael Tugendhat ruled that Bercow’s tweet about McAlpine was libelous. Her tweet read: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*” She had more than 56,000 Twitter followers, according to McAlpine’s lawyer, the Independent reported.
McAlpine’s solicitor Andrew Reid said that McAlpine tried to settle his case against Bercow earlier this year but that she declined, according to the Telegraph. Reid is quoted as saying:
“In January of this year, Lord McAlpine made a ‘without prejudice’ offer to Mrs Bercow to settle at a substantially lower sum than his leading counsel…advised that he was likely to obtain if the matter went to full trial.
‘He made the offer in an attempt to avoid the detrimental effect of litigation on his health, but sadly Mrs Bercow was not prepared at the relevant time to avail herself of this reasonable offer.”
Reid went on to say that Bercow must apologize on Twitter if she signs back up. “It is now a legal requirement that if Mrs Bercow does re-activate her Twitter account, she must formally issue on it the apology that she finally committed herself to make,” Reid said.
iMediaEthics has reached out to representatives for Davies and Bercow seeking comment. We’ve also written to Andrew Reid, McAlpine’s legal representative, asking how many legal claims McAlpine filed against Twitter users. We’ll update with any responses.
UPDATE: 10/29/2013 6:57 PM EST : Davies’ representatives at firm Harbottle & Lewis sent iMediaEthics the below statement:
“Statement by Alan Davies
“It is almost a year since I inadvertently tweeted a message which named Lord McAlpine. Throughout I’ve stood by the original public apology I issued in November last year making clear the allegations about him were false. In an attempt to make amends I also made voluntary donations to the NSPCC totalling £13,000. I hoped those steps might avoid legal action but in March press reports appeared saying I was going to be sued for £200,000. I offered to pay £15,000 in damages plus a contribution to costs and agreed to make today’s statement in court. From my own experience, I am able to warn others of the dangers of re-tweeting.
“I chose to donate to the NSPCC since they are in the forefront of campaigning against the sexual abuse of children. The story of the appalling abuse dealt out to helpless and vulnerable boys in care is what piqued the interest of millions. Today’s events concerning the regrettable false allegations of last year should not obscure the criminal activity that went on in North Wales. I will continue to support the work of the NSPCC and urge others to donate today if they can.”