Tweet by UK politician's wife defamatory

2013-04-16 20:10
Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of Britain's House of Commons. (Carl Court, AFP)

Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of Britain's House of Commons. (Carl Court, AFP)

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London - A tweet by a British lawmaker's wife that pointed her 60 000 Twitter followers to online traffic wrongly identifying a retired politician as a paedophile was defamatory, a London court heard on Tuesday.

Alistair McAlpine, an associate of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is seeking damages from Sally Bercow, wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, in Britain's most high-profile Twitter defamation case to date.

Bercow tweeted "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*" on 4 Nov 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 $283 300 in damages to McAlpine, who also received damages from others who had reported the story.

Bercow, who has apologised to McAlpine via Twitter and in two letters, denies that her tweet was defamatory.

Edward Garnier, a lawyer for McAlpine, told the High Court that the tweet amounted to alleging that he was a paedophile because only a "moron in a hurry" or a hermit in a cave would have been unaware of the furious speculation over the identity of the politician in the BBC report.

"We are not talking about some kitchen table blogger addressing perhaps herself and one other person," he said, arguing that Bercow had more followers on Twitter than some regional newspapers have readers.

Bercow's lawyer, William McCormick, told the court that her tweet about McAlpine merely asked a question, arguing that the onus was on him to prove that any reader of the tweet understood it to mean that McAlpine was a paedophile.

Dina Shiloh, a lawyer specialising in defamation at London firm Mishcon de Reya who is not involved in the case, said it would highlight the sometimes poorly understood legal dangers of using Twitter.

Tweet like newspaper

"The wider world ... aren't always completely aware that when you tweet it's a publication, it's exactly the same as publishing it in a newspaper in a big box," she told Reuters.

McAlpine had announced in February that he would not pursue damages against Twitter users with fewer than 500 followers who had linked his name to the erroneous BBC report.

Shiloh said that figure of 500 had no legal basis but was a "creative way" of dealing with a mass Twitter libel.

Bercow, who took part in the reality TV programme "Celebrity Big Brother" in 2011, was widely criticised that year for posing dressed in nothing but a bedsheet for a magazine interview.

She has again been on the front pages this week for saying she would not accompany her husband to Thatcher's funeral on Wednesday because she did not want to take part in "the attempted canonisation" of the former prime minister.

The comments were at odds with the tone set by her husband, Speaker John Bercow, who announced on Monday that Big Ben would not chime during Thatcher's funeral as a mark of respect.

Bercow and McAlpine were not present at Tuesday's hearing, which was to decide a technical point about how the court would handle the lawsuit. Substantive hearings about the disputed tweet are expected to take place in July.

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