McAlpine doesn't need to pursue Twitter users

With money in the bank and the slur comprehensively disproved, the damage to his reputation has already been repaired

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The Independent Online

This may be an apochryphal story, but we are told that Lord McAlpine was applauded by diners when he left a London restaurant last week.

Friends of the peer have been reported as saying he felt “buoyed” by this random display of support, and, whether or not this incident actually happened, there is no doubt that most right-thinking people would feel more than a degree of sympathy for an old man who has been falsely accused of paedophilia.

What's more, the fact that he was “outed” by a rumour-mongering Twitter mob only heightens the sense of outrage, particularly among those who neither use nor understand the social network.

In some circles, the good Lord McAlpine, pictured, with his threat to start legal proceedings against anyone who tweeted or re-tweeted his name, is regarded as something of a freedom fighter, the man who is taking on the cyber-gossips and has refused to be cowed by the scale of the job (lawyers believe that the number of defendants in this case could number 10,000).

Lord McAlpine has already settled for £185,000 with the BBC (even though they didn't mention his name), and has said that he is going after ITV for considerably more in respect of their gaffe on This Morning when his name was inadvertently shown to viewers.

Then there's the long list of Twitter users, who include prominent figures like the comedian Alan Davies (440,000 followers), The Speaker's voluble wife Sally Bercow (60,000 followers) and the environmental journalist George Monbiot (56,000 followers).

At the same time in America, Kevin Clash, who was the voice of Elmo in Sesame Street, was falsely accused of having an affair with an underage boy. Again, a similar Twitter storm, but Clash has not threatened any legal action against anyone who shared the incorrect story on Twitter. This is because, in America, the burden in libel cases falls on the claimant to prove the defendant knew the information was false, or likely to be false, or at least was not acting in good faith.

In Britain, the defendant must demonstrate that the accusation is true, nothing less. This is a huge difference, which many have argued has led to an imbalance in Britain in favour of the rich and powerful, who have used our libel laws to suppress information and thus restrict freedom of speech. The British system is overly protective of reputation, they say.

Which brings us back to Lord McAlpine. Can a man who gets an ovation from his fellow diners be considered any longer to have had his reputation traduced? He is one of the few people in Britain that we know, for certain, is not a paedophile. Of course, he should not have been subjected to this heinous slur, but maybe with a few hundred grand in the bank, and the BBC Director-General's head on a pole, the damage to his reputation has been repaired without now pursuing the tweeting thousands.