Mr Justice Tugendhat’s judgment in the Lord McAlpine vs Sally Bercow libel case is dry and thorough.
“Twitter permits users to express themselves in tweets of no more than 140 characters,” the judge explains. At this point he could have added “*po face*”. Eighty-four paragraphs later, he comes to the obvious conclusion: Ms Bercow’s mischievous tweet of 4 November, “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*”, was libellous.
It did indeed suggest, wrongly, that the former treasurer of the Conservative Party “was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care”, in the judge’s words. The BBC had refused to name the person accused by Steven Messham, who said he had been abused at a children’s home in Wales 20 years or so before, but BBC2’s Newsnight described him as “a leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years”. Ms Bercow drew attention to internet speculation that this person was Lord McAlpine, and was therefore jointly guilty, with many others, of defamation.
But Lord McAlpine was a victim of mistaken identity. Mr Messham and the BBC withdrew the allegation, apologised and sought to make recompense. Others who had repeated the mistaken allegation on Twitter did likewise. George Monbiot, the Guardian journalist, published a long, contrite apology and promised to do £25,000 worth of charity work as penance. Ms Bercow, on the other hand, pursued a different course. She insisted that her tweet had not been intended to imply Lord McAlpine’s guilt, and so she and the peer ended up in the High Court, with yesterday’s unsurprising conclusion.
The whole McAlpine story has been a salutary tale for the changing world of social media: a reminder that we are all, rightly, liable in law if we spread damaging untruths about others. The reason people are rarely prosecuted for malicious gossip at the office coffee machine is that so few others will hear it. The internet changes all that. Emails can go viral. Chat forums can attract thousands of readers. Tweets can be retweeted. And people such as Ms Bercow, with 56,000 followers (although she doesn’t have any now; she has deleted her account), and Mr Monbiot, with 69,000, should have learned that they need to take more care.
All that we learned last November. Yesterday, Ms Bercow provided an important additional lesson: if you get it wrong, admit it quickly and apologise.