Lord McAlpine prepares to sue Twitter users who named him

Sally Bercow faces possible legal action for naming Lord McAlphine on TwitterCertain high profile Twitter users, including Sally Bercow, could be in for a nasty shock as it is reported that Lord McAlpine may sue those who named him on Twitter in relation to damaging child abuse allegations. The incident is serving as a reminder how quickly that reputations can be ruined with a click and Tweet.

Twitter users named the Tory peer after a false report by the BBC’s flagship news programme Newsnight, which at the weekend led to the resignation of BBC director general George Entwistle after just 54 days in the job.

The BBC report was jumped on by a number of high profile Twitter users and many other users who Tweeted the news that a senior Conservative was being accused of paedophilia.

Newsnight was forced to issue an “unreserved” apology to Lord McAlpine, but that was too late for Entwistle the BBC director-general. He quit and BBC head of News, Helen Boaden, has “stepped aside”.

The Conservative peer, and former Thatcher era party treasurer, issued a statement on Friday night after days of speculation in the wake of the BBC Newsnight report last week.

He is reported to have instructed Sir Edward Garnier QC, the Conservative MP, to act on his behalf in any potential Twitter libel claim.

Bercow has since apologised on Twitter and said she is “very sorry for inadvertently fanning flames”.

This morning Bercow clearly showing signs of worry Tweeted that she has not “heard from McAlpine’s lawyers. Tho’ I may do. As may *thousands* of Twitter users, some of whom tweeted *far* worse…”.

“Very sorry. Was irresponsible & mischievous. Libellous? I don’t think so. But we’ll have to see…”

Media lawyers suggest he could have a good case against the BBC because it failed to put the allegation to him before they were broadcast.

This prompted the false speculation online, which had been circulating some weeks before the BBC ran with the story.

There have been no Twitter libel cases in the UK so far, but they have happened in the US. Last year Hole singer Courtney Love paid $430,000 in an out of court settlement after she made defamatory remarks about fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir on Twitter.

Steve Kuncewicz, a lawyer specialising in media and social networks, told the Guardian: “If the BBC has said something that doesn’t name him directly, but allows people to put two and two together, then there would be a risk in that. We’re talking about one of the most serious libels you can make, he’s been falsely accused of a very, very serious criminal offence.”

According The Times a source said that Lord McAlpine’s legal team is looking through tweets and other references to Lord McAlpine online to draw up a list of those who could be sued.

Many are likely to have quickly deleted their Tweets, but for others they might not have been quick enough and as many are already painfully aware very little goes away for good once it is shard online.

The source told the Times : “It could be a very interesting test case. What we hope will come out of it is an understanding by users of Twitter that you cannot smear people with impunity. People think they are just passing on gossip, but the damage to reputation is enormous.”

The case echoes the recent fines levied on nine people who illegally named a woman on Twitter and Facebook who was raped by footballer, Ched Evans.

Some of those who were fined retweeted abuse shared by others. A similar fate could now await some of Bercow’s 56,000 followers. The wife of the speaker of the House of Commons Tweeted this to her followers: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*.

Another who could be sued is Guardian columnist George Monbiot. He tweeted: “I looked up Lord McAlpine on t’internet. It says the strangest things.”

Monbiot also apologised. Those are just the most high profile users who shared Tweets about Lord McAlpine.

If legal proceeding do go ahead it will likely serve as a future warning to those who use it share potentially damaging Tweets.