Can every Twitter user be expected to factcheck Newsnight?

As the Lord McAlpine case shows, at some point we have to trust news organisations to tell us the truth.

I’m sure everyone has reached saturation point on the Lord McAlpine affair – I know I have. However, the dozens of articles and opinions I have read seem to have missed a rather central point. It is this: the person talked about on Twitter as the subject of that Newsnight report, actually, was the person that was the subject of that Newsnight report.

Lord McAlpine’s lawyers make no distinction between people commenting on Twitter before or after the Newsnight report. This is crucial. Because from that point on, we are not talking about speculation. We are not talking about a celebrity or a journalist getting the wrong end of the stick and naming the wrong person.

We are talking about people accurately putting together the easy puzzle that Newsnight aired. To my mind, this relegates Lord McAlpine’s extraordinary attack on tens of thousands of ordinary social media users to the realm of ludicrous. Because what it says, very directly, is that one cannot comment on the news without independently verified sources of one’s own.

If I, as the man on the Clapham omnibus, cannot reasonably assume that the information passed to me by one of the most respected news programmes of one of the most respected news outlets is accurate, I am effectively gagged from commenting on it. Or anything reported anywhere.

The alternative is that each one of us is required to seek out and interview witnesses and make a personal assessment of whether we believe a story or not. This is a ridiculous notion. How do I find out about MPs' expenses (remember at the time of the expenses scandal they were not published). How do I confirm a Times report which says, “a document leaked to us says X”?

The BBC may have had unreliable sources and got their investigation wrong. But the thousands of people who commented on the matter had a source hitherto believed to be one of the most unimpeachable; the BBC.

There is such a thing as "a proportionate reaction". If there was any doubt that McAlpine had been accused in error, I would fully support his attempt to clear his name. But that is not the case here. The fact that he was unfairly accused has now been registered and publicised much more widely than the original accusation.

In the absence of any such denial, of any persisting rumour, of any permanent damage to his reputation, to threaten to sue tens of thousands of people for discussing an accusation made by the state broadcaster, seems to me to be either a nonsense or the continuation of a distateful historical trend; the law of defamation being used by those with vast resources in order to silence those with no such resources.

The law on this issue is not a settled matter, as many quasi-experts would have you believe. It is a constantly evolving precedent – especially when it comes to new technologies. Common sense plays a huge part in assessing where lines ought to be drawn.

By the time Phillip Schofield presented David Cameron with his infamous list on ITV the next morning, people commenting on the matter were supported by two sources; the BBC and ITV. At what point would Lord McAlpine’s lawyers suggest that it is acceptable for ordinary folks to discuss the news? In their search for lucrative settlements, they would, no doubt, suggest “never”.

I disagree. When a story is put out as news by an organisation holding itself out to be a reliable news source, the buck must stop there. Otherwise public debate is forever stifled.

The buck has to stop with the "trusted" news source. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.