Twitter users face libel claims for spreading false accusation

The Economist | Guardian | New York Times
The BBC falsely accused retired British politician Alistair McAlpine of child sexual abuse, and paid a hefty £185,000 fine to settle the matter earlier this month. But now McAlpine is also pressing for compensation from thousands of people who tweeted about the BBC story at the time.

In the United States, such a charge would be unlikely to stick. Our laws, for instance, may protect claims made with an honest and reasonable belief that they were true at the time. British law is notoriously friendly to claimants, such that foreigners sometimes try to get British jurisdiction for their libel suits even when the case has little connection to the country.

About 1,000 tweeters implicated McAlpine, and another 9,000 retweeted their messages, The Economist reports. McAlpine’s lawyers have told those with fewer than 500 followers they can make amends with an online apology and a donation to charity.

But they are pursuing compensation from the more high-profile tweeters. The Guardian reports at least 20 will be targeted, including Guardian columnist George Monbiot, Sally Bercow (the wife of the speaker of the House of Commons) and comedian Alan Davies.

Monbiot and Davies have apologized:

Bercow went so far as to delete her Twitter account, which The New York Times points to as a sign of a chilling effect:

Could the threat of libel action dissuade Britons from posting on Twitter? By Friday, at least one prominent Twitter account had disappeared — that of Ms. Bercow, who had more than 50,000 followers, and who had followed up her comments on Mr. McAlpine with an apparent mistake in a different case: she appeared to have violated a court order by naming a British teenager who had been abducted by one of her teachers.

“This could have a chilling effect,” Paul Bernal, a lecturer in media law at the University of East Anglia, said of the McAlpine case. “I know people who have said that they are not going to post as much because of this.”

Twitter’s open-to-all publishing platform has been at odds with restrictive British laws before. Most notably, Twitter users have rebelled against “super-injunctions” issued by British courts — which prevent media from disclosing certain info and forbid reporting even the existence of the injunction.

First there was the 2009 Twitter uproar in the Trafigura waste-dumping case, and in 2011 Twitter users responded to a super-injunction regarding a famous soccer player who had an affair by making his name a trending topic.

Related: BBC had ‘complete control’ over McAlpine report, says the Bureau of Investigative Journalism | A defense of responsible tweeting

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  • dw

    The BBC’s payment wasn’t a “fine”: it was a settlement. A fine is paid to the government.

  • http://twitter.com/MillCityComic Buzzsaw

    Sorry British politician “Lord” McAlpine, Twitter is >>SOCIAL MEDIA<<. If you come under scrutiny for stuff that MIGHT be true, blame those responsible for the information… Not AS MANY PEOPLE AS U CAN SUE AT ONCE during a worldwide recession.

  • NateBowman

    Since this is a phenomenon particular to Britain, wouldn’t it would have been good journalistic practice to say in the title “British Twitter users….” rather than just “Tweeter users…”?

    Oh, I forgot.
    Page clicks trump journalism at Poynter.