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Sally Bercow Tweet was Libel

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The recent judgment in the case of McAlpine v Bercow sends a message of caution to Twitter users across the country.

The outcome of the case provides a timely reminder of the UK’s strict defamation laws to 21st Century online publishers.

Background to Sally Bercow’s Infamous Tweet

In November 2012 BBC Newsnight aired a programme which revealed allegations of the sexual abuse of young boys in a children's care home in Wales during the 1970s and the 1980s. It alleged the abuse was by a Thatcher-era politician; however he remained unnamed in the programme.

Amid speculation of the identity of the individual, the former Conservative Party Treasurer, Lord McAlpine was wrongly implicated as the abuser on the internet.

Two days after the Newsnight programme aired, Sally Bercow, wife of Commons Speaker John Bercow, published a tweet which created the defamation proceedings at issue. The tweet read “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? * Innocent face *”.

The Tort of Defamation

The tort of defamation allows for legal action to be taken against an individual, where that individual has communicated a false statement about another that harms their reputation. Comments can be held to be defamatory without intent, or without making an express allegation. Similarly, innuendo may also amount to defamation.

The meaning of words is interpreted by the reasonable reader. The hypothetical reasonable reader is not is not naive, nor are they unduly suspicious. They are capable of reading between the lines.

The Repetition Rule

In English defamation law, there also exists what is known as the “repetition rule.” This rule means that a defendant, who repeats a defamatory statement made by another individual, is treated as if they had made the allegation themselves.

It was argued that the tweet which Mrs Bercow communicated to her 56,000 Twitter followers was repetition of the original allegation of guilt against Lord McAlpine (albeit who remained unnamed in the initial statement) that was made on the Newsnight programme.

High Court Rules Tweet as Defamatory

In the High Court Lord Justice Tugendhat held the tweet to be defamatory. In its natural and ordinary meaning, he said it meant Lord McAlpine was guilty of the allegations of ‘sexually abusing boys living in care’. The Judge held that this constituted one of the most serious defamatory allegations one could make about an individual.

The Judge also found that the tweet was capable of bearing an innuendo to the same effect. Overall the judge held that the tweet constituted an allegation of guilt against Lord McAlpine and therefore defamed him.

The judge rejected the argument advanced by the defendant that her tweet constituted a neutral question. Lord Justice Tugendhat found that in the context of the case and the addition of the words “*innocent face*” meant the tweet was not published in a neutral manner but these words revealed the question was “insincere and ironical.”

If you need assistance with social media policies or other issues related to defamation, Rollingsons has experienced lawyers who can assist you. For more information please contact us on 0207 611 4848.

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