Précis - In the wake of false accusations leading from a recent BBC Newsnight Report, Lord McAlpine seeks redress from ITV, the BBC and over 10,000 Twitter users.
What? Following a recent report on the BBC's Newsnight programme, Conservative Peer, Lord McAlpine was falsely linked to sex abuse claims originating from the 1970s. Despite only being identified online following the report, his alleged connection with the claims quickly spread across the social media platform Twitter, and his name was "Tweeted" by over 10,000 users. Having been established as untrue, Lord McAlpine is now seeking legal action against numerous parties for linking him with such claims.
Whilst Lord McAlpine has now agreed six figure settlement sums with both the BBC and ITV, his lawyers have indicated a determination to obtain redress from individual Twitter users. He has separated these into categories of "high-profile" (over 500 followers) and "low-profile" users, with individuals in the former category expected to face claims for damages. Lord McAlpine's lawyers have suggested that low-profile users shall be expected to pay a small sum to the charity, BBC Children in Need.
So what? The way Lord McAlpine has distinguished between high and low-profile Twitter users is an interesting development. The softer approach with some Tweeters may also reflect two legal factors. First, that a court may take into account other awards in respect of the same libel when awarding damages. Secondly, Twitter is unlikely to provide confidential information such as names and addresses without a Court order, so Lord McAlpine will have to decide how far he wants to go in tracking down those that do not come forward voluntarily.
Over the last few years, in the face of privacy injunctions seemingly thwarted by tweets that exposed the identity of individuals, many commentators have claimed that laws needed to be changed or that the laws of privacy did not apply in the same way to social media activity. A similar sentiment has often attached to defamatory comments online; somehow, they were less significant or actionable than comments in the press or elsewhere.
That was never the case - and the Lord McAlpine situation has clearly illustrated why. What the extreme nature of this situation shows is how easily reputations can be damaged by social media and why it is so important that there can be redress, whether those defamed are public figures or not.