BBC row leaves Twitter under fire

By Jonathan Ames

13 November 2012 at 12:55 BST

Uncertainty over social media and jurisdictional approaches to defamation could become the most profound legal implication of the row currently raging over the BBC in the UK.

Now for the legal row

Now for the legal row Getty Images

The former Conservative Party politician at the heart of the latest development in the saga is understood to be huddled with his legal team to assess whether he can sue Twitter users -- and possibly even the social media site itself -- following incorrect suggestions that he was a paedophile.
In pursuing an action, Lord McAlpine – the former Thatcher-era Tory Party treasurer – could make legal history if he establishes that Twitter was a publisher of defamatory and untrue statements. The tweets were made after a BBC television report, which did not name Lord McAlpine, but, according to his legal team, strongly implied it was him.

Real world boundaries

‘Twitter cannot exist beyond the boundaries of the law,’ Amber Melville-Brown, a partner in the media and reputation management department at London law firm Withers, told the Post. ‘But in practical terms, a decision forcing it to live within the boundaries of the real world, could cause the virtual edifices of these tech companies to come sensationally crashing down.’
The Times newspaper reported yesterday that Lord McAlpine is weighing up legal action against Twitter users – not least the wife of the Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons, Sally Bercow – for comments made following the broadcast of a BBC Newsnight report into child abuse at a Welsh care home in the 1980s.
But the report added that Lord McAlpine’s legal team – lead by the former Solicitor General for England and Wales, Sir Edward Garnier QC – was looking at other high-profile Twitter-based commentators, including George Monbiot of The Guardian newspaper. It also noted that both Ms Bercow and Mr Monbiot had made complete retractions of their remarks and profusely apologised for them.

Gossip mill

The Financial Times quoted other media lawyers issuing warnings about using Twitter as a gossip mill. ‘[People] use Twitter as if it were a conversation to spread idle rumours, rather like pub banter,’ Chris Hutchings, media partner at London-based law firm Hamlins, told the paper. ‘People do not yet fully understand the legal risks.’
And Jonathan Coad, a media partner at fellow London law firm Lewis Silkin, told The Times: ‘Twitter is no different from any other form of communication. If what you say on it is defamatory, you can be sued. Some people think tweeting is just like talking in a pub. But Twitter has a permanence about it and tweets can spread quickly around the world.’
However, Ms Melville-Brown pointed out that so far judges have been relatively sympathetic to the difficulties that social media sites have with real time monitoring of comments. ‘Organisations such as Google and Twitter have resolutely resisted falling into the category of publisher,’ she said. ‘While this is cold comfort to the victim of abuse spread far and wide through its services, the argument is that any ultimate and binding decision that they are liable, either immediately or once put on notice, would oblige them to engage in a far more proactive way with media law and individuals' rights to reputation, and privacy.’


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