Lord McAlpine apparently plans to sue individual twitter users for libel. Approximately 1,000 defamatory tweets and 9,000 retweets apparently sprang up after the Newsnight program that inferred, inaccurately, that Lord McAlpine was a paedophile. He is seeking an apology and a nominal sum donated to Children in Need from most of the 10,000 or so twitter users who identified him as the high profile conservative figure from the Thatcher era. He is prepared to seek more from the likes of Alan Davies and Sally Bercow who have more than 500 followers. So far newspapers report that only 40 of the 10,000 have taken him up on it.
I grant you Lord McAlpine has suffered a terrible ordeal as a result of this furore. I also agree that people should be held accountable for what they say online however this has been pushed too far. Apart from any other consideration the logistics seem patently absurd but that is irrelevant. Are these tweets defamatory? Yes, unfortunately they are. However it seems to me that though the BBC choose not to name Lord McAlpine they did the ground work and left the breadcrumbs that lead unsuspecting tweeters to Lord McAlpine’s door. From what I have seen these people were speculating following the Newsnight allegations rather than coming to their own independent judgements. Apparently honestly believing it to be the truth carries no weight legally speaking it ought in my opinion to have been taken into account. The BBC should and have paid for their mistakes (£185000) as have ITV (£125000 + legal costs) and that should have been an end to it.
One of the beauties of the internet, until now, has been that it is a hotbed of free speech – much of it wretched but some of it stunning and all of it free. We need to protect free speech online. Our free speech laws in this country are dubious at best – it is one area in which America has us knocked into a cocked hat. Our libel laws put the burden of proof so much on the defendant that in 2008 the United Nations Human Rights Committee said they stifled free speech. For years people have been coming to England from all over to censor works that would be perfectly acceptable in their home country, especially the United States. In response to increasing UK libel tourism, in 2010 the US passed the SPEECH act making foreign libel judgements invalid unless they were consistent with the first amendment. There have been efforts to curb libel tourism since then but we are still currently stuck with outdated libel laws and little guarantee of freedom of speech. If Lord McAlpine is successful in suing these tweeters and current thinking seems to suggest he could be then I think it will be time for the UK to seriously consider whether we believe in free speech.
Some Agreement Some Disagreement – All Worth A Look
- Twitter is safer in America: lessons from the Elmo and BBC sex scandals (gigaom.com)
- Lord McAlpine, Twitter and libel law: the facts (newstatesman.com)
- Lord McAlpine to donate Twitter defamation cash to Children in Need (standard.co.uk)
- McAlpine Pedophilia Tweet Cases May Expand UK Defamation Law – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- McAlpine lawyers to deal with ‘high-profile tweeters’ next (itv.com)