Why it's time for Sally Bercow to pay up as well as shut up after Lord McAlpine Twitter debacle
It could be the case with the most defendants in legal history. Lord McAlpine has 10,000 Twitter users in his sights, along with traditional media owners such as the BBC and ITV.
Time to pipe down: Sally Bercow
Just as football fans became intimate with the intricacies of the CVA thanks to the Rangers debacle, the social media community are about to learn all about libel.
No bad thing in my view. Some of them, most prominently *innocent face* Sally Bercow, may feel they are being hard done by. Surely Twitter itself should protect users from such risk? And Bercow even referred to lawyers pursuing her in one tweet as #bigbullies.
But hold on. She was part of the lynch mob that strung up the reputation of an innocent man. She, like everyone else involved, has to learn that with personal freedom comes personal responsibility. If you want to use your Freedom of Tweet to accuse somebody of a crime, then you have to be prepared to face the consequences if you are wrong.
The issue gives an interesting symmetry to the on-going debate about press regulation.
Many fear that Leveson may be about to recommend statutory controls of the press in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.
But the BBC’s role in both the McAlpine and the Jimmy Savile affairs must have given him cause to pause.
On one hand the BBC failed to unmask Savile as one of history’s most prolific child abusers. Then on the other, they all but named Lord McAlpine as a paedophile in a Newsnight report, despite the fact he was entirely innocent.
That was no doubt the genesis of the Twitter frenzy. Many would have tweeted out Lord McAlpine’s name confident in the fact that an organisation like the BBC thought he was guilty.
The BBC of course is already one of the most heavily regulated media institutions in the UK. And what this debacle proves is that regulation is no guarantee of standards. If a Director General becomes a Bystander General, or a newspaper journalist decides to break the criminal law, things will go awry no matter what regime is in place.
The current system of checks and balances - that combine self-regulation with civil and criminal law - is in fact an effective way of dealing with these failings. The real issue with phone hacking was not the system, but simply a failure to enforce it. Elements need to be tweaked – such as the law of libel and the role of the Press Complaints Commission – but fundamentally the system works, particularly because it is monitored by a free and vibrant press.
So let’s hope we can move forward into an era where both the press and citizen journalists alike – using platforms such as Twitter - always have the freedom to publish and be damned.