Users of social media took careful note today as the High Court ruled that a tweet published by Sally Bercow about Tory peer Lord McAlpine was libellous.
In November the former Conservative Party treasurer was wrongly linked by BBC Newsnight to a child sex abuse case at Bryn Estyn children’s home in the 1970s and 80s, following which the wife of Commons Speaker John Bercow wrote: ‘Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*’.
Lord McAlpine said that the tweet constituted an innuendo that meant he was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care.
Professional injury solicitors RMPI led by senior partner Andrew Reid represented Lord McAlpine, along with One Brick Court duo Kate Wilson QC and Sir Edward Garnier QC. Garnier QC argued during the trial that the tweet by its nature implied wrongdoing, and the addition of ‘*innocent face*’ gave a ‘nudge and a wink’ to readers.
Bercow was represented by well-known media lawyer and managing partner of Carter Ruck, Nigel Tait, who instructed William McCormick QC and David Mitchell of London Ely Place Chambers to defend Bercow in court.
McCormick QC claimed during the proceedings that Bercow’s tweet contained a statement of fact that Lord McAlpine’s name was trending on Twitter.
In his ruling today (24 May), Mr Justice Tugendhat found that the Tweet was defamatory ‘in its natural and ordinary meaning.’
He added: ‘If I were wrong about that, I would find that the Tweet bore an innuendo meaning to the same effect.’
Reid said: “The apologies previously received from Mrs Bercow did not concede that her tweet was defamatory. Clearly she must now accept this fact.’
On her defeat, Bercow said: ‘I very much regret my tweet, and I promptly apologised publicly and privately to Lord McAlpine for the distress I caused him. I also made two offers of compensation. Lord McAlpine issued proceedings and the last few months have been a nightmare. I am sure he has found it as stressful as I have. Litigation is not a pleasant experience for anyone.
‘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.’