Sally Bercow tweet 'pointed to Lord McAlpine'

Sally Bercow Sally Bercow has denied her tweet was defamatory

A tweet by Sally Bercow pointed the "finger of blame" at Tory peer Lord McAlpine in the wake of a report which saw him wrongly linked to claims of child abuse, the High Court has heard.

Lord McAlpine, who was falsely accused after a BBC Newsnight investigation, is seeking libel damages over the tweet.

He was not named on the programme but was wrongly identified on the internet.

Mrs Bercow, the wife of the House of Commons Speaker, has denied that her tweet was defamatory.

Last November, a Newsnight programme accused a "leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years" of sexually abusing boys in the care of a children's home in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s, but it did not name Lord McAlpine.

There followed widespread speculation about the politician's identity and, two days after the broadcast, Mrs Bercow tweeted: "Why is Lord McAlpine trending. *innocent face*."

'Nudge and wink'

She went on to apologise in four subsequent tweets.

The BBC apologised unreservedly to Lord McAlpine for wrongly and falsely implicating him. It settled his defamation claim for £185,000.

Analysis

This defamation case is one of the first to be fought over a tweet, but it will certainly not be the last.

Last year the former New Zealand cricket captain Chris Cairns was awarded £90,000 in libel damages after allegations on Twitter that he was involved in match-fixing.

That underscores a simple modern truth: Publication online on the micro-blogging site, albeit contained within a bite-sized 140 characters, counts as publication in just the same way as a considered article in a newspaper.

Twitter users and bloggers beware that the instant nature of social networking sites does not provide any additional protection in law.

What used to be confined to conversations among friends is now committed to published words, which can go viral online at an astonishing rate.

So, when opening a Twitter account, users might want to invest in a basic guide to the law of defamation.

Several other high-profile figures also mentioned Lord McAlpine's name on the social networking site, Twitter.

The BBC's legal affairs correspondent Clive Coleman said the High Court "meaning hearing" was held in front of a judge and involved both sides arguing over the meaning of the words in the tweet.

If the judge decides the tweet was defamatory, there will be a separate hearing to decide the amount of damages owed. If he rules it was not, it will be an end to the case.

Sir Edward Garnier QC, a former solicitor general who is acting on behalf of Lord McAlpine, told the court that because of the huge amount of publicity around the Newsnight programme "only an idiot in a hurry" could not have known the meaning of the tweet.

He said it was against a backdrop of extensive news coverage that Mrs Bercow tweeted Lord McAlpine's name - a man who fitted the description of the unnamed person at the centre of the controversy.

The addition of "innocent face" underpinned the connection of him to wrongdoing, giving "a nudge and a wink" to readers.

"Put another way, what was the tweet about, if it was not pointing the finger of blame at Lord McAlpine?" he said.

Neutral question

Lord McAlpine was not in court for the hearing but Mrs Bercow did attend.

Her lawyer, William McCormick QC, told the judge that Mrs Bercow had swiftly tweeted a number of apologies and had written to apologise for the distress caused.

He added that a previous offer to settle the case had not been withdrawn.

He said Mrs Bercow's tweet posed a question and contained an implied statement of fact that Lord McAlpine was trending, but this was entirely neutral.

The words and punctuation of "innocent face", he said, were merely an indication that the question should be read with a deadpan emphasis or tone, comparable with stage directions such as sotto voce or a notation on a musical score.

Judgement in the hearing has been reserved.

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