Lord McAlpine halts some defamation cases: are you safe?

Updated: 

Sally Bercow

Lord MacAlpine has announced he will not be continuing with some defamation cases against Twitter users who wrongly claimed he was a paedophile. Instead they will be asked to make a donation to the Children in Need charity.

However, this is far from the end of the story.



The row erupted after the BBC's Newsnight programme led to him being wrongly accused of child abuse - the BBC has since paid him £185,000 in damages. The accusation was repeated by a number of people on Twitter, and he said he would be taking legal action for defamation.

Dropped

His latest announcement is that those with fewer than 500 followers will simply be asked to make a charity donation - which The Guardian says is £25.

In a statement he said: "I have dropped all claims against those tweeters with less than 500 followers, in return for a very modest donation to BBC Children In Need, which funds 2,600 projects supporting disadvantaged children and young people in the UK."

Ongoing

However, this is not the end of the issue, because he also said he has told his lawyers to concentrate on the related Tweets made by the Speaker's Wife, Sally Bercow (pictured).

The statement continued: "I have requested that my lawyers, RMPI LLP, focus on the action against Sally Bercow and that damages arising from this are donated to a charity of her choice." He added: "I am not intending to make any further comment on this matter" and said he was hoping to draw this to a close.

According to the BBC, in December Bercow's lawyers said that McAlpine's lawyers had made a claim for libel damages of £50,000 over a tweet she had sent regarding the Newsnight programme.

The risks

The dropping of smaller cases doesn't mean an end to the risk of ill-considered tweets. Lord McAlpine has chosen to bring an end to this, but he wasn't compelled to. He could have pursued each individual to the end.

It highlights the risks we take when we tweet.

There have been a number of high profile cases where individuals have received large payouts as a result of something someone said on social networking sites.

And just because you don't have a vast number of followers and you aren't yourself famous, this doesn't mean you are protected from libel laws. You could still be pursued for damages.

Paul Bernal, Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the University of East Anglia Law School, said in his blog: "Tweets can be defamatory, and are not out of the reach of the law. Tweeps have had to pay very high damages to those that they have defamed even where the offending tweet has not been read by many people"

One technology and legal blogger, Paul Jacobson, has recently warned people against Tweeting about the ongoing courtroom revelations regarding South African sportsman Oscar Pistorius. He highlighted that his Twitter feed was packed with conjecture about the case, and that given that the court has not given any verdict, he should still be considered innocent unless proven otherwise. He warns that these tweets could lead to cases further down the line.

Many users see Twitter as being like talking to a group of their friends, but it's a public and published forum, so the libel rules apply. You may not have many followers and may feel protected, but re-tweets can give you a far larger audience, and could land you in serious trouble if choose to ignore the legal advice and make defamatory comments about anyone - famous or otherwise.

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