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Day: November 12, 2012

Will Lord McAlpine sue Sally Bercow and others who named him? If he does it might teach them a lesson

I was so frustrated last week. No not just the fact my first date of the year had been a failure but in the Lord McAlpine story and also the ambushing of the Prime Minister by Phillip Schofield. Now it has been a fair few years since I sat my Journalism Law exam but I remember one or two things and trusty McNae’s isn’t too far away. Namely what I remember is naming someone potentially involved in a criminal investigation when in fact they were not is not really a good thing. In fact it is a really bad thing. Throwing names out there that many people have on the social networks linking them to the paedophile ring in the government is also a really bad thing.

People have the misplaced trust that if 1000s of people name and shame the culprits then the law is on their side. Well that isn’t exactly true. In fact it couldn’t be more wrong. Strength in numbers is a good thing but when you are defaming someone all it means if they have yet another individual they could sue if they wanted to.

The old adage of ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ has been thrown at me regarding this. ‘Look if it wasn’t true then why are so many people talking about it?’ people exclaim. Well another great adage is that in this modern day era a lie is halfway around the world before the truth ever comes out. People believe what they are told by anonymous sources on the internet. If someone sets up a fake ITK account on twitter then people will retweet it and soon the lie becomes so widespread that people believe that it is the truth.

Someone posted the names of several high profile politicians on a group I am a member of saying that these were all the names linked to the paedophile ring according to the internet. It was basically a who’s who of politics over the past three decades. He said that all these people should face a criminal court and should step down as MPs or Lords until the cases were over. I pipped up and said that at this current juncture only one accusation had been made against a politician but that didn’t matter to this person (and several others) as the internet had spoken and the internet is the new judicial system.

What depressed me most though wasn’t the fact that he had said such a stupid thing (and others agreed) but more that his only defence was ‘Hillsborough’ and because there was a cover up in this instance that automatically meant there was a cover up here and that everyone named on the internet had to answer the accusations. I tried to point out that anyone on the internet can accuse another person. If he had been accused by anonymous sources on the internet then what would he do? Would he take it lying down or would he sue the pants off of anyone who spread the lie knowing it wasn’t true? No doubt he’d do the latter.

We live in a dangerous society where lies can be spread quicker than ever before and the lie will always be first and therefore will always live on even after the truth comes out in the minds of some people. Even though the accuser has now backed down in his claims against Lord McAlpine saying that the police told him that the person he identified was Lord McAlpine when it plainly wasn’t – some people will still believe that Lord McAlpine is guilty and there is nothing he can do about it. He cannot change those minds. All he can do is seek restitution against those who spread the lies about him.

There are some (semi) famous people who were dumb enough to name Lord McAlpine including Sally Bercow – who has never come across as the sharpest tool in the box as it were. She has since apologised and says she was irresponsible and mischievousness but does not believe that she did anything libellous. It is an interesting one because she didn’t overtly say ‘Look Lord McAlpine is a paedo’ but she certainly implied – heavily implied that he was the name at the centre of the investigation – which he was. As we now know though all the accusations were false and had she (and others) not named or heavily hinted at his involvement then he would not have been defamed. It would certainly be a landmark case should he sue her and would be extremely interesting to see how it played out as I genuinely don’t know but we need to find out whether just implying guilt on social media is defamatory or not. My guess is that it very well might be…

The thing is though Lord McAlpine was at least linked to the investigation (albeit it turns out falsely) but other names are out there on the internet who are not linked in any way, shape or form at the moment to any investigation around this case. These people have seen people openly tweet about them and even twitter itself may find itself in hot bother with one very senior Conservative MP because when you search for ‘tory paedophile’ or any words to that effect his name came up as one of the ‘suggested searches.’

The sad thing about all this is the investigation is now taking the back seat. Children were abused but that is now not the story. The story is about how the BBC acted and whether Lord McAlpine (and others) should sue – and who they should sue if so. They are legitimate stories because of how things have panned out but it is overshadowing what should be the real story. Hopefully the police can continue their investigation and get to the bottom of what went on but whilst that happens the BBC and potential civil cases will lead the way.

I hope people who were defamed sue – and even if they sue and give all the compensation they get to child abuse charities then some good will have come off it. I just think people need to understand that there is a law of the land and spreading malicious gossip on the internet is generally not considered to be a good thing. I live my life on the basic principle of treat others how I’d like to be treated. Would I like it if people were accusing me of crimes on the internet without having a smidgen of knowledge then would I like it? No I wouldn’t – and nor would any of the people that were doing such to Lord McAlpine and others. If you wouldn’t like it done to you then don’t do it. A good motto for life not just a good motto for not being an idiot and potentially finding yourself facing civil action.

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