A Judge has found that a Tweet sent by Sally Bercow, amounted to an accusation that Lord McAlpine was “a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care”.

Background

On Friday 2 November 2012, BBC Newsnight broadcast a programme in which “a leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years” was alleged to have sexually abused a boy living in a care home in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.  The alleged abuser was not named but Lord McAlpine (former Deputy Chairman and Treasurer of the Conservative Party, and close aide to Margaret Thatcher during her premiership) was then wrongly identified on the internet, following a large amount of unsubstantiated speculation on various social networking sites. The BBC apologised unreservedly to Lord McAline and settled his subsequent defamation claim for £185,000.

On Sunday 4 November 2012, two days after the Newsnight programme, Sally Bercow (the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons) sent out the following Tweet to her 56,000 followers.

“Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*

Once it had become obvious that Lord McAlpine had been wrongly identified, Bercow apologised in a number of subsequent Tweets, whilst maintaining that the original Tweet was not defamatory.

Lord McAlpine issued proceedings against Ms Bercow for libel, claiming that the Tweet meant that he was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care.  In her defence, Ms Bercow denied the Tweet meant that, or that it meant anything defamatory of the claimant.

In May of this year, the case came before Mr Justice Tugendat, who was asked to determine as a preliminary issue the meaning of the words complained of, and whether they were defamatory of Lord McAlpine. 

Judgment

The Judge concluded that the Tweet meant, in its natural and ordinary defamatory meaning, that Lord McAlpine was “a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care”.  The Judge added that in the alternative, he would find that the Tweet bore an innuendo meaning to the same affect.  The Judge found that the reasonable reader would understand the words “innocent face”  to be insincere and ironical, rejecting Bercow’s argument that the words should be understood in a neutral way.

The Judge held that the reasonable reader of the Tweet would have linked Lord McAlpine to the Newsnight programme, as they probably shared Ms Bercow’s interest in politics and current affairs, and would have been aware of the elements of the Newsnight story. Whilst some of those readers would have known who Lord McAlpine was, even without that prior knowledge they would have linked him to the Newsnight programme on the basis that Bercow referred to him as “Lord” .

“The Tweet asked why the named Lord was trending in circumstances where 1) he was not otherwise in the public eye on 4 November 2012 and 2) there was much speculation as to the identity of an unnamed politician who had been prominent some 20 years ago.”

For these reasons, the Judge held that readers of the Tweet would reasonably infer that Bercow had “provided the last piece in the jigsaw”.

The Judge added that given the ‘repetition rule’ (the rule that a defendant who repeats a defamatory allegation made by another is treated as if he had made the allegation himself) Bercow was to be treated as if she had made, with the addition of Lord McAlpine’s name, the allegation in the Newsnight and other media reports which had previously been made without his name.  That is, an allegation of guilt. 

The case has since settled on terms which have not been disclosed.

Comment

This is not the first time social media users have been warned about the dangers of making defamatory allegations online.  At the end of 2012, the Court of Appeal upheld a damages award in Cairns v Modi of £90,000 in relation to a Tweet made to approximately 65 followers, albeit in relation to serious allegations. As Bercow said after the above Judgment was handed down: “Today’s ruling should be seen 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. On this, I have learned my own lesson the hard way.”