Apologise and pay or be sued, McAlpine solicitor tells long list of Twitter users
People who linked the British Conservative peer Lord McAlpine on Twitter to untruthful allegations that he was a paedophile must apologise and pay damages or be sued, his lawyers warned yesterday.
The move by the former Conservative Party treasurer came as British police arrested former BBC disc jockey Dave Lee Travis on suspicion of sexual offences. The early-morning arrest in Bedfordshire was made by detectives investigating hundreds of abuse allegations linked to the late Jimmy Savile.
Nearly 500 people have now come forward to allege that they were abused by Savile during his 30-year career with the BBC, with 200 doing so in the last two weeks alone.
Retweeted 100,000 times
Clearly distraught, Lord McAlpine said BBC television programme Newsnight could have been told that the allegations linking him to abuse at a North Wales care home were wrong by just a telephone call to him.
Saying that paedophiles are “quite rightly figures of public hatred”, Lord McAlpine said: “Suddenly to find yourself a figure of public hatred, unjustifiably, is terrifying.”
His lawyers have already put together a list of those who posted Twitter messages alleging that he was a paedophile, or strongly implying that he was – some of which were retweeted 100,000 times.
The list included Sally Bercow, wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, and Guardian journalist George Monbiot, while ITV presenter Phillip Schofield is also targeted.
ITV yesterday said they had disciplined Schofield, who handed a list of alleged suspects live on its Daybreak programme to British prime minister David Cameron.
“We know who you are and we know exactly the extent of what you have done. You must take responsibility. The public are fed up with it,” said Lord McAlpine’s solicitor, Andrew Reid. “Let it be a lesson to everyone that trial by Twitter, trial by the internet, is a very nasty way of hurting people unnecessarily, and it will cost people a lot of money.”
Compensation from BBC
In one tweet, Ms Bercow, who is frequently controversial, said: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*”. She later apologised for her action. However, yesterday she insisted that the tweet had not been libellous, but rather was “just foolish”, before adding: “Best not comment any more ’til seen a lawyer.”
The BBC is on the verge of agreeing compensation with the 70-year-old peer, who has a “dicky” heart, as he put it. However, he said he believes his reputation will never recover.
“It can be repaired to a point. But there is a British proverb which is insidious and awful where people say, ‘There’s no smoke without a fire’, you know, ‘he appears to be innocent, but’,” he told the BBC.”
Newsnight is facing an investigation by Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator.
The arrest of Dave Lee Travis brings the number of entertainers now facing police questioning to three, following the earlier arrests of comedian Freddie Starr and former singer Gary Glitter.
No allegations of child abuse have been made against Mr Lee Travis, though two women have alleged sexual assault. He has angrily denied the allegations.
Twitter: Age of responsibility dawns for users
The warning by Lord McAlpine’s solicitor that Twitter users will be pursued for defamatory tweets about him unless they apologise may come as a surprise to many.
However, it is a reflection of a rising determination to remind people that what is published on social media is subject to the same laws as conventional print or broadcasting.
While social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook say they seek to promote freedom of speech, they do so namely because laws drawn up in the US during the growth of the internet in the 1990s sought to ensure that service providers would not be held responsible for the actions of their users.
Irish law has been slow to catch up with the impact of the internet, but UK authorities have been taking steps to ensure people understand the consequences of what they say on social media.
The British legal system is substantially more advanced than ours in dealing with the law and social media, mainly because of existing laws that regulate electronic communications.
Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service reiterated recently that people would be held responsible for what they posted online, and reminded them that a “retweet” (the act of sharing a tweet) amounted to republishing, and so subject to the laws around defamation.
Twitter insists it obeys the law of the countries in which its service is used.
As a result it may mean that those who defamed McAlpine on Twitter may have their information disclosed if the company is ordered to do so in the UK.
What brings the US, British, and indeed Irish legal systems together is that individuals can be, and in most serious cases almost certainly will be, held personally responsible for what they say on social media.