UK: ex-politician wrongly accused as pedo will sue tweeters who linked him to sex abuse

Former Conservative Party treasurer Lord McAlpine was accused of pedophilia in a now-famous Newsnight broadcast that led to the ouster of the head of the BBC. McAlpine now says he plans to sue Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the Commons, and George Monbiot, a columnist for the Guardian, for tweeting his name after the television program was was broadcast. Snip:
Lord McAlpine’s solicitor, Andrew Reid, said the “nasty” tweets would “cost people a lot of money”, warning the guilty parties: “We know who you are.”

He added: “Twitter is not just a closed coffee shop among friends. It goes out to hundreds of thousands of people and you must take responsibility for it.

“It is not a place where you can gossip and say things with impunity, and we are about to demonstrate that.”

Read more: Lord McAlpine to sue tweeters who linked him to sex abuse as BBC pays £185,000 damages. (Telegraph)


  1. Lord McAlpine has never even denied being complicit in Glen Beck’s rape and murder of a young girl in 1990.

      1. You’re talking abut the UK, a place where a pediatrician had her home attacked by a mob because they couldn’t tell the difference between a pediatrician and a pedophile.

        1. they couldn’t tell the difference between a pediatrician and a pedophile

          Actually, it was that they couldn’t tell the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile. You must admit that is rather more tricky.

  2. Personally, I feel that the Sally Bercrow tweet is being blown out of all proportion in order to chill speech on twitter.  The content of her tweet was: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*”  If Lord McAlpine was in fact trending then there’s nothing explicitly connecting him to this case.  Saying “Suzy is a ho”  is quite different from stating “A lot of people are talking about Suzy”.

    1.  …it’s a lot less different if, at the time, a lot of people are sitting in a circle chanting “Suzy is a ho”, and the comment is meant to direct the listener to them.

      Not a fan of this case, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that her tweet wasn’t relevant at all.  (And while the UK has serious free speech problems, and this may be one of them, free speech has never in any jurisdiction meant “slander anyone you like without consequence”.)

      1. I really don’t understand this one, why is her name protected, she ran away with her teacher, her name was all over the news at the time when her parents were doing news conferences?

    2. It is arguably defamation-by-innuendo – the suggestion that McAlpine had done something worthy of trending on twitter, at the same time as the Newsnight accusations were floating around, it could pass the ‘reasonable man’ test for defamation whereby a ‘reasonable man’ reading that tweet could be expected to link the two.

  3. Maybe this guy is the poster boy for the “wtf do we do now that everyone knows about the super-injunction trick and they’re all talking about all of us???” movement.

    Without being wealthist, I suspect not many of these lawsuits are going to stem from the 99%.

    Aaaah … good ol’ suppression of free speech.  Don’t you just yearn for the days famous authors were jailed for homosexuality?  Their books were banned for ‘explicit’ sex between gardeners and posh lassies?

    I mean – look – see the rampant destruction of society in the wake of all that.  We live in a cesspit, surely we do.

      1.  Aw c’mon, it’s not that bad.  According to Wikipedia, the only kinds of speech that are limited are: “threatening, abusive, or insulting speech or behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace (which has been used to prohibit racist speech targeted at individuals), incitement, incitement to racial hatred, incitement to religious hatred, incitement to terrorism including encouragement of terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications, glorifying terrorism, collection or possession of information likely to be of use to a terrorist, treason including imagining the death of the monarch, sedition, obscenity, indecency including corruption of public morals and outraging public decency, defamation, prior restraint, restrictions on court reporting including names of victims and evidence and prejudicing or interfering with court proceedings, prohibition of post-trial interviews with jurors, scandalising the court by criticising or murmuring judges, time, manner, and place restrictions, harassment, privileged communications, trade secrets, classified material, copyright, patents, military conduct, and limitations on commercial speech such as advertising.”

        How hard could it be to stay within the law?  Those with nothing to hide etc…  :-)

        1. So that ‘stiff upper lip’ thing was actually an admonishment to avoid falling afoul of all-encompassing UK libel laws.

    1. This case is pretty different to super injunction ones.  Those cases are “I’ve found out the fact that Jane Bloggs is having an affair with Joe Shmoe but am prevented from publishing this because of a court order to protect the privacy of some party”.

      This case is “I am unable to accuse Joe Shmoe of being a child molester because I have not got evidence of such and would therefore be libeling him”.  There are problems with UK Libel law, but I think having evidence before public accusations of child molestation is a pretty clear cut case.

  4. Shouldn’t he also start suing all news organizations and blogs that have reported that he is now suing people who reported that the news reported that he was a pedo?

  5. This isn’t a grey area defamation case – this is absolutely exactly what defamation should cover.  If you lie about, or spread the lie, about someone, claiming that they have committed an incredibly serious criminal offence, which not only exposes the victim to public hatred, but also serious risk of assault then there should be some legal comeback.  This is nothing to do with the UK defamation system, or freedom of speech -this would be actionable in most US states.  In some US states, I suspect this would be criminal defamation and we’d be talking about jail, rather than fines…  UK internet users are still governed by UK law – and some of the people involved in this, professional journalists and people in the media, really have no excuse for not knowing that.  

    1.  Well, that seems reasonable when it comes to the people responsible for launching the false accusations in the first place, but once they were all over the news, it seems unreasonable to start suing anybody who just used Twitter to discuss a current news story.

    2. So repeating something that the news reported is criminal. 
      We now are required to do our own research before commenting on anything to cover ourselves from being sued?

      It would be one thing if there had been no news report and they were making it up out of thin air, but they did not.
      To claim the BBC should be considered an untrustworthy source would be nonsense.

      1. “To claim the BBC should be considered an untrustworthy source would be nonsense.”

        Yet here we are, confronted with that very fact. 

        1. They had no reason to question the source intially, and it appears they made attempts to correct their statements when it was discovered the reporting was incorrect.
          Will they be suing everyone who retweeted or made comments?  Or just political targets.

          1. Not so: they had every reason to question the source – that’s just due diligence when you have a serious accusation.  And in this case there was a cock-up.  Mistakes have consequences.

            What interests me is that there’s really two ways to deal with a Streissand-effect PR barf: ignore it and hope it goes away, or go nuclear.  Most folks don’t have the resources to go nuclear.  Should be an entertaining show. 

      2. “So repeating something that the news reported is criminal.”

        Under current legislation, technically yes. Each repetition of a defamatory statement is itself a further defamation. IANAL, but there may be a legal defence based on the perceived truthfulness of the original Newsnight report, but those people who named someone who was NOT named by Newsnight took it further, and repeated an internet rumour with no such expectation of veracity.

        Tweeting, blogging, or publishing in a newspaper, it’s all a form of publication subject to the same laws, and unfortunately ignorance of those laws is not a defence.

        1. Not being UK based I was going with the facts as they were relayed.  The opening of this article makes it sound like he was in fact named when they accused him.
          If this report was more like a “blind item” from a gossip magazine –
          1- how the BBC has fallen
          2 – then they deserve the lawsuit
          but being a world away from it I can only work within the framework as presented.
          TY for giving me some missing information.

      3. I thought I’d heard on the news that the irony is that the BBC news report didn’t name anyone. Yet the head of the BBC stepped down after other people speculated about who it might be. 

        1. He was the only person in the English-speaking world who claimed to have no idea what was happening on his network.

    3. The source was the BBC, and there was at the time no obvious reason to question that source.

      In the US libel requires that (IANAL, so this is appx. wording from my memory of high school civics) 1) The statement is false, 2) The speaker knows or has good reason to think the statement is false, and 3) The speaker intends to cause harm with the statement

      So no, it wouldn’t be actionable in U.S. states.

    4.  To be fair — even though I have to choke down a lifetime of Tory hatred to type this — McAlpine is being pretty classy about this.  They announced on the radio this morning that all he’s asking for is £5 donation to charity and a formal apology from each of the Tweeters.  And considering he could have tried to go for the BBC’s throat, he “only” (haha) asked for £185k, on the grounds that it was the licence-fee-payers who would really be paying, which isn’t fair on them.  Which is pretty damn grown up.

  6. I thought both Bercow and Monbiot (and others) had apologised, well before any legal threats were on the horizon.  

  7.  Well there are two things to consider.

    – you need funding to sue.  So the 99% are never going to do it, and if they tried, the reputational damage would likely be deemed minimal.  Really, this is a rich man’s game.

    – The only thing that Twitter ++ have changed is the written record of gossip.  Although I don’t agree in the slightest with gossip or the idiots who believe it, I note that the existence of a platform whereby a written record exists of gossip seems to provide a mechanism for a suit to be successful.  In the past, gossips up and down the land seem to have gotten away with slander every 5 minutes.

    The way this seems to be rolling is that every individual who repeated or hinted at the claim/allegation is jointly and severally liable for reputational damage.

    Witheringly, had they tweeted (which they will now – that’s the way language evolves) with the inclusion of a journalistic “alleged”, they’d be fine.  So nothing will change – the next scandal will trend with “alleged”.

    The initial naming?  Yes, that’s defamatory, but again, presented in the right way, how could it be?  If you in good faith believe a statement to be true – “John is an alleged cat hunter”, repeating it is fine.

    So the Sally B thing?  I hope she fights it.

    And I really, really don’t like the idea of data-mining to find everyone who re-tweeted or tweeted on the matter.  That’s the same, only easier to do, as sending interrogators in to bingo halls to find out who said what and when.  I’m disgusted.

    I also don’t think the cases will work.  A half decent lawyer is going to knock this flat.

    And really, what’s McAlpine’s interest here?  Slamming the beeb and itv does the trick, so what’s behind the twitter thing?

  8. Is it just me, or isn’t it obvious Lord McAlpine’s Lawyers are about to shoot themselves so strongly in the foot that they’ll blow their own heads off?

    They say they are about to sue 10,000 tweeters. Among those 10,000 they’ll be single mothers struggling on the breadline, old-age pensioners, disabled soldiers who lost bits of themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan and a representative for every sort of sympathy group you can imagine – whether you’re sympathies are of The Guardian or Daily Mail variety. 

    Soon if they carry on with this madness there’s going to be bills for thousands dropping through these people’s doors. And then, sooner or later they’ll be people for whom this was the last straw before their marriage broke up, or they are evicted for being made bankrupt. We might even get a suicide or two.  And it’ll make extremely good copy.

    He’s a member of the upper class with expensive lawyers. That’s really going to make him look like a victim…. I think not. It’s all very well suing 10,000 anonymous twitter followers, when it becomes ‘young Stuart from Manchester who got his leg blown off serving his country’, or ‘wee Mary with the 5 year old bairn’ it’s going to look very, very different.

    1. His lawyers are ahead of you on this one.  They’ve said if “normal people” apologise and make a nominal donation to a charity, they won’t pursue them.  He’s only going after media organisations and celebs for substantive payments, which seems reasonable to me.

      1. It might be better if he sued all 10K people. It would probably get the law clarified. Apparently, it’s becoming common enough in the UK for people to call the police to complain that someone is being mean to them on the internet that it’s starting to impact police budgets.

        1. So its a good thing he’s not doing that at all and, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t involved the police with any of this bogus “sending malicious communications” nonsense that’s being misused to prosecute poppy burners and trolls.  I think people falsely accused of horrible things, which could potentially ruin their life, should have some come back, whether those claims are in their local newspaper or on Twitter.

    1. But he’d lose. Truthfulness of the statement is usually a solid defense against defamation claims, unless there’s malicious intent. However the burden of proof lies on the defendant.

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