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Twitter libel case: Bercow defamed McAlpine

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Nudge-nudge tweet’s implied sarcasm was libellous Judge rules.

The High Court has ruled a tweet by Sally Bercow about Lord McAlpine, which he claims named him as a paedophile, was libellous.

The wife of Commons Speaker John Bercow was sued by the Tory peer for damages after she named him on Twitter last year.

The Tweet read:
"Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*"

Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled that the tweet sent by Sally Bercow bore the “natural and ordinary” defamatory meaning that Lord McAlpine “was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care“.  In the alternative, he held that the tweet bore an “innuendo meaning” to the same effect.

The key paragraphs from Mr Justice Tugendhat’s judgment read:

“The Defendant does not have any burden of proof in the issue I have to decide. She does not have to offer an alternative explanation of why a peer, whose name and career is known to few members of the public today, might have been trending on 4 November 2012 without her knowing why he was trending. But where the Defendant is telling her followers that she does not know why he is trending, and there is no alternative explanation for why this particular peer was being named in the tweets which produce the Trend, then it is reasonable to infer that he is trending because he fits the description of the unnamed abuser. I find the reader would infer that. The reader would reasonably infer that the Defendant had provided the last piece in the jigsaw.

The Claimant's case is that in their natural and ordinary meaning, and/or in the alternative, by the way of innuendo the Tweet meant that he was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care. The Defendant denies that her Tweet meant that, or that it meant anything defamatory of the Claimant. Her case is that the question she asked in her Tweet was simply a question. She accepts that the question implied that the Claimant was trending, but that by itself is entirely neutral, and there is nothing else to be inferred from the question she asked. Her question does not suggest any reason why the Claimant was, or might have been, trending. Her question was as neutral as the statement on the Twitter screen itself which listed the Claimant under the heading “Trends””

Background to the libel case

On 2nd November 2012 the BBC “Newsnight” programme broadcast a report which included a serious allegation of child abuse against a “leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years”. No individual was named.  It later transpired that the accuser had misidentified the person who had abused him.

The contents of the “Newsnight” report were widely reported in the media on the Saturday and Sunday but the alleged abuser was not named. The BBC subsequently apologised unreservedly to Lord McAlpine and agreed to pay him substantial damages in the region of £185,000.

Lord McAlpine brought proceedings for libel against Sally Bercow in relation to the publication of the offending tweet to her 56,000 followers.

The posting appeared two days after a Newsnight report on November 2 wrongly implicated the former Conservative Party treasurer in allegations of sex abuse at Bryn Estyn children's home in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mrs Bercow denied that the tweet - "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*" - was defamatory, and has apologised publicly and privately to the former Conservative Party treasurer for the distress caused to him.

Responding to the judgement, Mrs Bercow said she was "surprised and disappointed".

"However, I will accept the ruling as the end of the matter. I remain sorry for the distress I have caused Lord McAlpine and I repeat my apologies," she said.

"I have accepted an earlier offer his lawyers made to settle this matter."

Her statement said: "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.”

Pearson Solicitors Online Defamation Service

Pearson Solicitors' Litigation team have specialists who deal with defamation in the online world. To speak to a solicitor specialising in defamation and libel, contact Laura Pracy.

Please note that the information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Pearson Solicitors and Financial Advisers Ltd or any of its members or employees. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.

This blog was posted some time ago and its contents may now be out of date. For the latest legal position relating to these issues, get in touch with the author - or make an enquiry now.

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