The tweet, “Why is Lord McAlpine trending. *innocent face*.” was posted by the wife of the House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, two days after a BBC programme linked a “leading Conservative politician” to claims of sex abuse at a Welsh children’s home. It did not name Lord McAlpine however speculation grew on social media sites, specifically Twitter, as to who the suspect could be.
Mrs Bercow apologised in a number of subsequent tweets, but Lord McAlpine pursued the legal action against her after settling a number of similar claims against other users of Twitter who had supported the allegations.
Undeniably controversial, the question for Mr Justice Tugendhat was whether the tweet was actually defamatory – something which Mrs Bercow has denied throughout. He found that the inclusion of the phrase *innocent face* suggested to readers that she was being “insincere and ironical”, and thereby inferred that McAlpine was “trending because he fits the description of the unnamed abuser”
According to the ‘repitition rule’, the comment is treated as if Mrs Bercow had made the original allegations herself. This is a stark warning to potential ‘re-tweeters’ who may also be sued under the same provision.
A settlement has already been agreed between Lord McAlpine and Mrs Bercow. The details of the settlement are not known, however the BBC settled with the peer in the sum of £185,000.
In settling the matter, we will not learn the effect that Mrs Bercow’s regret and sincere apologies would have had on the damages. In other cases, a swift declaration of apology and expression of regret has been considered when limiting or reducing liability. In a recent case against Google, the speed in which the online platform removed a defamatory posts was found to be significant in forming a decision.
Mrs Bercow stated, “Today’s ruling should be seen as a warning to all social media users” and added that “Litigation is not a pleasant experience for anyone.” She added that comments could sometimes be “held to be seriously defamatory, even when you do not intend them to be defamatory and do not make any express accusation”.