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
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.