Ground-breaking Twitter law suit looms

By Jonathan Ames

14 December 2012 at 13:35 BST

Britain's row over the liability of social media users continued to bubble this week as the wife of a senior political figure faced a £50,000 defamation suit for recent comments on Twitter.

Sally Bercow: headed to court? Featureflash/

Sally Bercow – who is married to the Speaker of the House of Commons -- waded into the feeding frenzy triggered several weeks ago by a BBC report alleging that former Conservative Party treasurer Lord McAlpine was a paedophile. The allegations were false and the BBC subsequently apologised and paid the peer £185,000 in a settlement, while commercial broadcaster ITV, which also covered the story, settled for another £125,000.

Media flurry

But in the immediate social media flurry following the report, Ms Bercow tweeted a comment that is now the subject of Lord McAlpine’s legal action. The Daily Mail newspaper reported yesterday that formal proceedings have been issued following failed efforts by Lord McAlpine’s legal team to settle with Ms Bercow out of court.
Ms Bercow has denied that her tweet was defamatory, and the Mail speculates that the case could end up in court, with potentially embarrassing ramifications for the speaker. The Lawyer newsapaper reported that Ms Bercow had instructed leading media law specialist firm, London-based Carter-Ruck.

Free for all

More importantly, the case could have serious implications for users of social media. So far, the young medium has been viewed as an effective free-for-all environment, where conventional jurisdictional laws of defamation seemed almost unenforceable. But that view could quickly change if Ms Bercow takes a £50,000 hit for a few short tweeted thoughts.
In the wake of Lord McAlpine’s announcement of legal action against Ms Bercow, English specialist media law firm Wiggin released research showing that only slightly more than half of Britons aged between 18 and 24 were aware they could be sued for defamation for posting unsubstantiated rumours on line.
Caroline Kean, a partner at the firm, commented: ‘With more and more people becoming creators of their own content and social commentators, we may well see an increase in defamation claims against younger people who are just not aware of the dangers. I can see how litigation in this area may start to become more common and more costly as we see more litigants in person deciding to have a go’.


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