British MP's wife loses libel case over bad tweet

Both sides in legal battle say success of lawsuit against British speaker of parliament's wife is a wake-up call for anyone who uses Twitter

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 May, 2013, 4:22am


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A British court has ruled that a tweet by a parliamentarian's wife that pointed her 56,000 followers to online traffic wrongly naming a retired politician as a paedophile was defamatory, even though it did not spell out the allegation.

The High Court in London handed down its ruling yesterday, in Britain's mostly closely watched Twitter libel case. The case was brought by Alistair McAlpine, an elderly ally of late prime minister Margaret Thatcher, against Sally Bercow, the flamboyant wife of the speaker of parliament.

The lesson for Twitter users is that libel laws apply to them, too, and the context of their tweets will be taken into account by the courts, both sides said after the ruling.

Bercow had tweeted: "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? #Innocent face#" on November 4 last year, two days after a BBC report accused an unnamed "leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years" of sexually abusing boys in the 1970s and 80s.

Why is Lord McAlpine trending? #Innocent face#" on November 4 last year, two days after a BBC report accused an unnamed "leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years" of sexually abusing boys in the 1970s and 80s

McAlpine was widely named on the internet as the subject of the report, which the BBC later admitted was wrong. It paid £185,000 (HK$2.1 million) in damages to McAlpine, who gave the money to a children's charity.

Bercow denied that her tweet was defamatory, arguing that it merely posed a question, but the court disagreed.

"In my judgment, the reasonable reader would understand the words 'innocent face' as being insincere and ironical," wrote Judge Michael Tugendhat, saying those words made it clear Bercow did not simply want to know the answer to a factual question.

The judge ruled that in the context of frenzied online speculation as to the identity of the unnamed politician, Bercow's tweet "provided the last piece in the jigsaw".

"I find that the tweet meant … that [McAlpine] was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys," he wrote.

As a result of the ruling, Bercow accepted an earlier offer of settlement proposed by McAlpine. The sum involved was not disclosed and the cash will be given to charity.


McAlpine had announced in February that he would not take action against Twitter users who had defamed him but had fewer than 500 followers, instead inviting them to apologise and make a suitable donation to charity.

Several people with wider followings who had also repeated the false allegation voluntarily settled out of court with McAlpine, but until yesterday Bercow had refused to do so.

"[The ruling] is one of great public interest and provides both a warning to, and guidance for, people who use social media," said Andrew Reid, a lawyer for McAlpine, who is in frail health and lives in Italy.

Reid said McAlpine and his family were still being subjected to "venomous social media commentary" months after he had been publicly vindicated, and the retired politician hoped the police would prosecute some of the online abusers.

"Prosecutions are going to regulate the internet if the government won't legislate," Reid said.

Bercow, who will have to formally apologise to McAlpine in court at a later date, said in her statement that she had not tweeted with malice, but her tone was defiant. She was not in court for the ruling but said: "I very much regret my tweet."

"I was being conversational and mischievous, as was so often my style on Twitter," she said.

"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 intent them to be defamatory and do not make any express accusation. On this, I have learned my own lesson the hard way."

Since her husband, John, became speaker of the lower house of parliament, Bercow has gained a high profile of her own. She took part in reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother in 2011 and was widely criticised that year for posing in a photograph wearing nothing but a bedsheet, with the House of Commons in the background, for a magazine interview.

Additional reporting by The Guardian