Libel law and social networks: a problematic and turbulent future?

General - Interesting Topics

The BBC has recently agreed to settle Lord McAlpine’s libel claim for £185,000 over the allegations of child sex abuse that arose during a Newsnight broadcast on 02 November 2012. Although the Newsnight broadcast did not name McAlpine directly, it highlighted that a Conservative peer was guilty of child molestation. This led to social network sites being overrun with speculation as to the identity of the Tory and subsequently Lord McAlpine’s name. The speculation was frenzied and unfounded and it has now been established that Lord McAlpine was wrongly identified as being guilty of child abuse.

So what’s the issue? Well, allegations of such a serious criminal offence have the potential to leave a reputation in tatters despite the fact it has been established that he was wrongly identified. Although McAlpine has received £185,000 in damages this does not remedy the fact his name will be forever linked with the phrase ‘child sex abuse’.

The BBC settling Lord McAlpine’s claim is by no means the end of the issue. There are further potential claims against ITV and nearly 10,000 twitter users. Yes, that’s right, 10,000 Twitter users, giving this libel claim the potential to be the biggest in British history with the amount of potential Defendants. This figure includes original tweeters and re-tweeters of Lord McAlpine’s name linked with child abuse. The names of Alan Davies (Jonathan Creek and QI star) and Sally Bercow (wife of John Bercow – speaker in the House of Commons) are present in the list of potential defendant’s for their tweets surrounding the scandal.

The use of Twitter and other social networks makes it very easy to satisfy one of the requirements for libel; publishing the statement to a third-party. With the growing use of social networks and the ability for individuals to publish pretty much whatever they want to thousands of people at once, the risk of this type of case becoming commonplace is significant even if it is not desirable. Many of the twitter users were probably unaware of the implications of what they were saying as it’s not easy to know exactly what is and isn’t libellous. Legal liability for libel isn’t the first thing you consider when updating your status or tweeting to your followers, but perhaps it should be as it seems things are about to change; watch this space!



All information is correct on the date of posting.