A tweet by a British parliamentarian's wife that pointed her 56,000 followers to online traffic wrongly naming a retired politician as a paedophile was defamatory, even though it did not spell out the false allegation.
That was the judgment of the High Court in London on Friday in Britain's mostly closely watched Twitter libel case, brought by Alistair McAlpine, an elderly ally of late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, against Sally Bercow, the flamboyant wife of the speaker of parliament.
The lesson for Twitter users is that libel laws apply to them too and the context of their tweets will be taken into account by the courts, both sides said after the ruling.
Context is key
Bercow tweeted “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*” on November 4 last year, two days after a BBC report accused an unnamed “leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years” of sexually abusing boys in the 1970s and 80s.
McAlpine was widely named on the Internet as the subject of the report, which the BBC later admitted was wrong. It paid 185,000 pounds in damages to McAlpine, who gave the money to a children's charity.
Bercow denied that her tweet was defamatory, arguing that it merely posed a question, but the court disagreed.
“In my judgment the reasonable reader would understand the words 'innocent face' as being insincere and ironical,” wrote Judge Michael Tugendhat, saying those words made it clear Bercow did not simply want to know the answer to a factual question.
The judge ruled that in the context of frenzied online speculation as to the identity of the unnamed politician, Bercow's tweet “provided the last piece in the jigsaw”.
“I find that the tweet meant … that (McAlpine) was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys,” he wrote.
As a result of the ruling, Bercow accepted an earlier offer of settlement proposed by McAlpine. The sum involved was not disclosed and will be given to charity.
“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,” said Bercow in a statement.
McAlpine had announced in February that he would not take action against Twitter users who had defamed him but had fewer than 500 followers, instead inviting them to apologise to him and make a suitable donation to charity.
Several people with wider followings who had also repeated the false allegation voluntarily settled out of court with McAlpine, but until Friday Bercow had refused to do so.
The ruling “is one of great public interest and provides both a warning to, and guidance for, people who use social media,” said Andrew Reid, a lawyer for McAlpine, who is in frail health and lives in Italy.
Reid said McAlpine and his family were still being subjected to “venomous social media commentary” months after he had been publicly vindicated, and the retired politician hoped the police would prosecute some of the online abusers.
“Prosecutions are going to regulate the Internet if the government won't legislate,” said Reid.
Bercow, who will have to formally apologise to McAlpine in court at a later date, said in her statement that she had not tweeted with malice, but her tone was defiant.
“I was being conversational and mischievous, as was so often my style on Twitter,” she said.
Since her husband John became speaker of the lower house of parliament, Bercow has acquired a high profile of her own. She took part in the reality TV show “Celebrity Big Brother” in 2011 and was widely criticised that year for posing in a photograph wearing nothing but a bedsheet, with the House of Commons in the background, for a magazine interview.