UK Libel Ruling on Lord McAlpine Tweet a 'Warning to all social media users

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UK judge Justice Michael Tugendhat ruled that Sally Bercow  — the wife of UK Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow — libeled retired politician Lord McAlpine last fall with a tweet about him reading: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*”

McAlpine had been in the news at the time because of widespread inaccurate suggestions that he was the unnamed politician accused in a BBC Newsnight program of being a pedophile.

As iMediaEthics wrote at the time, Newsnight aired a program Nov. 2 that interviewed a man named Steve Messham about his accusations of sex abuse against a “senior Conservative figure.” While McAlpine wasn’t named in the report, many people online concluded (wrongly) that McAlpine was the accused. McAlpine denied the claims, and Messham ended up apologizing himself. According to Messham, it was a case of mistaken identity because the person he identified in a photo back in the ’90s as responsible, the police wrongly said it was McAlpine. The BBC apologized for its report, as did the BBC Director General at the time, George Entwistle, who said he didn’t know about the Newsnight program until after it aired, and ended up resigning.

McAlpine said he would sue those identifying him for libel, and the BBC settled for close to $300,000 and costs.  McAlpine then planned libel lawsuits against people who tweeted about him related to the sex abuse claims. Earlier this year, McAlpine decided not to move forward with lawsuits “against those with fewer than 500 followers” on Twitter in exchange for the users giving a “donation to the BBC’s Children in Need,” according to the BBC. Instead, he decided to pursue his lawsuit against Bercow with the stated intention to give any damages awarded to charity.

Bercow’s tweet didn’t explicitly accuse McAlpine, but Tugendhat concluded it was libel, the Guardian reported.

Tugendhat dissected her tweet, characterizing her writing “innocent face” to be “insincere and ironical.”  He is quoted as saying:

“I find that the tweet meant, in its natural and ordinary defamatory meaning, that the claimant was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care. If I were wrong about that, I would find that the tweet bore an innuendo meaning to the same effect.”

Bercow is settling on the specifics with McAlpine out of court and said of the ruling that “to say I’m surprised and disappointed by this is an understatement.”  Further, Bercow described the ruling as a “warning to all social media users.”

“Things can be held to be seriously defamatory, even when you do not intend them to be defamatory and do not make any express accusation,” she added.

McAlpine’s lawyer Andrew Reid comented that the “failure of Mrs. Bercow to admit that her tweet was defamatory caused considerable unnecessary pain and suffering” to McAlpine, according to Bloomberg. 

iMediaEthics has written to McAlpine’s legal representatives asking for comment about the ruling and the status of any other libel actions McAlpine is involved in. We’ll update with any response.

McAlpine also sued ITV over its report listing him him as an alleged abuser.  After the BBC report was aired, ITV showed a list of alleged abusers on air. While ITV said it was a “misjudged camera angle” that made it possible for readers to see the list, which was being given to the UK prime minister. ITV apologized but more than 400 complaints were filed with UK broadcast regulator OfCom.  ITV ended up paying McAlpine $200,000 and costs for its error.

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UK Libel Ruling on Lord McAlpine Tweet a ‘Warning to all social media users’

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