Sally Bercow pointed “the finger of blame” at Conservative peer Lord McAlpine by tweeting during a media frenzy over allegations of child sex abuse, a judge was told.
The wife of Commons Speaker John Bercow posted the message on the social media sit two days after a BBC Newsnight report wrongly implicated the former Conservative Party treasurer in sex abuse claims dating back almost 30 years. The allegations related to a broadcast by the news programme last November about events at Bryn Estyn children’s home in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.
Mrs Bercow has always denied that her tweet – “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*” – was defamatory. Today she appeared in London’s High Court as lawyers argued over the true meaning of her message.
Lord McAlpine, who has already received six-figure payouts from the BBC and ITV, said she was implying he was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care, and he, therefore, wants damages.
Sir Edward Garnier QC said it would be difficult to think of a more serious meaning than the one advanced by Lord McAlpine, who was not in court.
He told Mr Justice Tugendhat that his case was founded on the circumstances in which Mrs Bercow decided to tweet the peer’s name – the media frenzy over a story that spread “like wildfire”. “The tweet, by itself, suggests that ‘Lord McAlpine’ has done something wrong,” Sir Edward said.
“Drawing attention to someone and then adding the expression ‘innocent face’ hints at wrongdoing and negates any suggestion the tweet was a neutral query to which the defendant was looking for an answer. The inclusion of the words ‘innocent face’ was giving a nudge and a wink to readers.”
Sir Edward said a Twitter user was not someone who ignored what was happening in the world or the media. “In short, there was a prominent and salacious story in the media, and what was missing was the name of the abuser at its centre,” he said.
The barrister added that, against the backdrop of almost saturation news coverage, Mrs Bercow tweeted Lord McAlpine’s name – a man who fitted the description of the unnamed person at the centre of the controversy. “Put another way, what was the tweet about, if it was not pointing the finger of blame at Lord McAlpine?” he said.
But Mrs Bercow’s counsel, William McCormick QC, argued the tweet posed a question and contained an implied statement of fact that Lord McAlpine was trending which was entirely neutral.
The judge has reserved his decision to a later unspecified date.