Lord McAlpine, Twitter and libel law: the facts

The law gives no immunity to Twitter gossip.

The constant challenge faced by the law is to adapt to social change. The social media present just such a problem becaus they are a twenty-first century means of gossiping, activity which includes the disclosure of private information and the making of defamatory allegations.

However, as we have all learnt recently, making serious allegations on Twitter - or Facebook, or anywhere simliar - can now have unpleasant consequences both for the subjects and perpetrators of such gossip.

The law concerning Twitter is straightforward: if you make a defamatory allegation via a tweet then you are liable to be sued for libel.

The bigger question facing us as a society is whether the law should regulate this kind of communication. Its role is to balance the right of free speech guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, with the Article 8 right to privacy and reputation. Which should take precedence on Twitter?

At the moment the law gives no immunity for Twitter gossip which infringes the rights of others. Anyone who has seen the interview with Lord McAlpine talking about the impact on him of being accused of being a paedophile will be left in no doubt about the effect the Twitter campaign (which eventually made its way into the commercial media) has had on him.

On that basis it looks like the right thing is for the twitterati to obey the same basic set of legal principles as the newspapers, broadcasters etc.

It is difficult to see the social value of allegations of paedophilia against innocent people doing the rounds on Twitter, sent by people with no basis to believe they are true. If the threat of legal sanction prevents this then such a modest qualification of the free speech right is surely in the greater public interest.

Jonathan Coad is a partner in the Media, Brands & Technology team at Lewis Silkin LLP. He can be contacted on 020 7074 8115 or at jonathan.coad@lewissilkin.com

This article first appeared in Spears magazine.

 

Twitter and the law. Photograph: Getty Images
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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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