Sally Bercow, the Speaker’s wife, has been adjudged to have defamed Lord McAlpine of West Green, a High Court Judge has recently held following an ill considered tweet.
This followed the BBC and ITV having to pay out over £310,000 in compensation for comments made in programmes including Newsnight. Mrs Bercow has been forced to agree to a settlement after the High Courts finding.
The tweet referred to media allegation that “a leading Conservative” from Wales in the 1970s and 1980s had been involved in child abuse. Mrs Bercow went a step further, tweeting:
“Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*”
His Honour Mr Justice Tugendhat commented that in his judgement the reasonable reader would have understood the words “innocent face” as being insincere and ironical. He summarised the case by stating that the tweet took the media allegations a step further by adding an name to the person accused of the crime.
Needless to say since the downfall of Super Injunctions (in no small way due to Twitter) Judges appear unsympathetic to any social media that infringes an individual’s rights.
Mrs Bercow commented:
“To say I’m surprised and disappointed by this is an understatement.
“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. On this, I have learned my own lesson the hard way.” She described the legal wrangle with McAlpine as a “nightmare” and added: “I am sure he has found it as stressful as I have.”
Therefore businesses, employees and individuals should all remain aware of the risks when commenting or making use of social media, particularly when re-tweeting comments about a thrid party about which the person does not have direct knowledge. Whilst Twitter and social media can be a powerful forum to communicate with an extended audience, you don’t want to be “surprised” if your message gets more attention than you bargained for.