Lord McAlpine appears to have come to a deal with BBC over the false child abuse allegations made against him by Newsnight. His lawyer has warned those who outed him on the internet to come forward on the grounds that they “we know who you are”. But do they. I don’t think anyone has investigated the full ramifications of the paedo Twitter storm.
The better known journalists and celebs who defamed Lord McAlpine have already come forward and made abject apologies, like the Guardian journalist, George Monbiot and the loudmouth wife of the Speaker, Sally Bercow. But this is only the beginning. Numerous websites like alternative.co.uk and Men Will Pause, a blog written by a woman called Caroline Wilde, had not only published Lord McAlpine’s name, but a raft of names of prominent Tories from the past and present. It is difficult to track this without appearing to contribute to the libel, but if anyone wants to find out just how how lurid the paranoia about paedos in power had become on the web, they should look up a blog published by a former British National Party councillor from Wales, Kevin Edwards.
Now, some might be puzzled by my use of the word “published” in connection with Twitter. Most people don’t think of the micro-blogging site as a publication with any editorial responsibility for what is posted there. I keep hearing references to “rumours on the internet” as if these were private conversations between individuals. Many appear to believe that, as Lord Leveson put it, Twitter is “just like people talking in a pub”. If so, it is a very big pub which is visited by hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis – far more than read any newspaper. The truth is that Twitter, like this blog, is a medium of publication just like any newspaper. They are all in the public domain; they are mediums for the dissemination of information and views to the general public. And the law should not treat them differently.
Some years ago, this Sunday Herald was taken to court by a prominent Labour politician because of a defamatory remark left as a comment after an online article. The comment had only appeared for a matter of hours before it was deleted by a moderator. But the politician was still able to take the Sunday Herald to court and to win substantial damages. This is because, under the law, it is the publication that is liable for any defamatory statements made by its journalists or contributors. If someone had posted Lord McAlpine’s name in a comment on our internet site last week, we would similarly have been taken to court. This is how the law on defamation works – but for some reason the law does not apply to Twitter.
Some claim that Twitter is not a publisher because it doesn’t edit the posts. That’s irrelevant – it would be no defence against a defamatory post on a newspaper comment site that it hadn’t been edited. Anyway, Twitter does edit its posts and blocks anything that involves child pornography or promotes Nazi or racist propaganda. It announced last year that it also selectively blocks tweets that might be considered illegal or offensive in countries like China or Thailand. The micro-blogging site was accused of conniving with censorship in repressive regimes. So, it cannot claim that it takes no interest in the content of tweets – it makes a lot of money from them for a start.
Now, I am utterly opposed to all forms of censorship. However, it cannot be right for blameless individuals, even if they are rich Tories, to have their reputations destroyed by false allegations about child abuse. Being defamed on the internet is worse than being defamed by a newspaper because in the old days at least the remaining editions could be pulped. A allegation made on the internet can’t be destroyed or withdrawn. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. There is no way that Lord McAlpine’s name could be erased from the countless tweets, emails, blogs and sites where he has been linked to child abuse.
And it’s not going to end here. In the wake of the Savile abuse scandal, there is something like a witch-hunt going on throughout the internet. Victims are being invited to come forward with claims, often decades old, against figures of authority. More names will be posted on sites. We are told that this is unfortunate but necessary if the guilty are to be brought to justice and the victims achieve closure. Certainly, the law should not be used to protect the rich and powerful from their wrong-doingBut the presumption of innocence has to be the basis of any fair legal system. And this means protecting people from false accusations. And the only way to do this is to hold the publications themselves responsible for material appearing on their pages.
Individuals who post on the internet are not themselves above the law, as nine men and women who recently tweeted the name of a rape victim discovered when they landed in court. A trainee accountant, Paul Chambers, was convicted in 2010 of sending a menacing communication when he joked on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood airport. Last year, a juror in a trial in Luton Crown Court, Theodora Dallas, was prosecuted just for looking up one of the defendants on the internet. It cannot be right for individuals to be brought to book but not the people who make money out of their defamations.
There is no need for new legislation or regulation of the press, only for the existing law to be enforced. There should be equal treatment of newspapers and the internet. You can’t have one law for the analogue media and another for the digital media – the distinction simply cannot sensibly be made. It’s time to put Twitter in the dock.