A former UK politician wrongly named on Twitter as a paedophile after a false report by the BBC may expand the reach of libel law with his threat to sue thousands of people over online posts.
Alastair McAlpine, 70, a former Tory party treasurer, has said he'll take legal action against about 10,000 people who he says tweeted or retweeted defamatory posts after the BBC wrongly implied he sexually abused a boy in the 1970s. The cases may correct the view that libel on social media isn't as bad as in print publications, said Ruth Collard, a media lawyer at Carter-Ruck in London.
It's no defence to say you had no idea.Ruth Collard, media lawyer
"With Twitter and the internet generally, people think it's not the same as publishing a newspaper, book or magazine, but if you are the author, then you take responsibility for it," said Collard, who isn't involved in the dispute. "It's no defence to say you had no idea."
The BBC, the world's biggest broadcaster, agreed to pay McAlpine £185,000 pounds ($284,096) after the November 2 error on its Newsnight report, which gave hints about the ex-politician's identity without naming him. Before the mistake was uncovered, Twitter postings accusing McAlpine were already spreading, setting the stage for the biggest case of its kind in Britain.
McAlpine, who was deputy chairman of the UK Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher, wants Twitter users with fewer than 500 followers to apologise and donate to the BBC Children in Need charity, said Charlotte Offredi, a spokeswoman for McAlpine's lawyers.
Twitter users with more than 500 followers, including a journalist at The Guardian newspaper and Sally Bercow, the wife of House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, should also apologise for naming him, she said, though McAlpine hasn't decided what legal action to take against that group.
McAlpine's libel dispute has caught the attention of the Metropolitan Police Service in London. Officers are meeting with "interested parties" to determine whether a crime may have taken place, the service's press office said.
Until now, the highest-profile Twitter libel in Britain involved former New Zealand cricket captain Chris Cairns suing Lalit Modi, ex-chairman of an Indian league, for tweeting that he fixed matches. Modi failed to prove the claim in court and was ordered in March to pay £90,000 ($138,202) in damages.
As McAlpine brings the threat of such legal claims to average citizens, the former politician who now lives in Puglia, Italy, may create a "tipping point" in the public's view of defamation, including libel, said Andrew Terry, a media lawyer at Eversheds in London, who isn't involved in the cases.
"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," said Terry.
While newspapers can defend mistaken reports by showing they tried to get it right, Twitter users don't have the same standards and may have a hard time defending postings that are later proved wrong, Collard said.
Twitter limits postings to 140 characters and users can share another person's tweet with a few clicks.
"At least if you're writing an article you can ask the other party to comment and you can be balanced," said Steven Heffer, a media lawyer at Collyer Bristow in London. "But in a short tweet you're taking a risky step if you allege something, but you can't prove it."
It doesn't matter if the Twitter users believed they were spreading correct information at the time, because the "good intention or honest belief of the publisher doesn't help", said Eddie Parladorio, a media lawyer with PSB Law in London.
Although tweets that name McAlpine and accuse him of crimes are clearly defamatory, Parladorio said, a tweet doesn't even need to cite him or the word "paedophile" to give him a case if a "reasonable reader" of the post would link him to the BBC report.
After the BBC report, Bercow tweeted, "Why is Lord McApline trending? *innocent face*". She later tweeted that the tweet wasn't libellous.
John Bercow's office in Parliament declined to give out Sally Bercow's phone number and said she could only be reached through standard mail delivery. She didn't immediately reply to an email to her husband's office and her Twitter account has been turned off.
If the threatened cases make it to court, the defendants may be helped by a provision of English law allowing judges to reduce damage awards based on how much money someone has already received from other sources, Heffer said.
McAlpine's potential lawsuits are "an unusual approach, particularly when he's received a large award from the BBC," Heffer said. McAlpine may also have a hard time identifying users who don't name themselves on their Twitter pages and may have to sue Twitter to do it, Heffer said.
Twitter, based in San Francisco, is often resistant to requests for users' personal information. Helen Prowse, a spokeswoman for the company, declined to comment on McAlpine.
The scandal started when Steve Messham, a victim of abuse at a children's home in Wrexham, north Wales, alleged involvement by an unnamed senior figure in the Tory party. He said he was "sold" to men for sexual abuse at a nearby hotel.
McAlpine issued a statement on November 9 denying subsequent internet rumours he had been part of a paedophile ring, complaining of a "media frenzy" and saying he "must publicly tackle these slurs and set the record straight."
"A lot of people who made the allegations were just repeating what had come to them," Collard said. The McAlpine case "may make people think more cautiously about sending on rumours or gossip without really knowing anything about it".