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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“I’m frightened, genuinely frightened”: how London terror attacks affect the rest of the country

What happens to tourism after terrorism? 

Like many children his age, Adele Pillinger’s six-year-old son is “obsessed” with dinosaurs. Last year, the mother of two from Silsden, West Yorkshire, booked a family trip to London so her two sons could visit the fossil-filled Natural History Museum. They were to go in October 2017 – next month. But last week, Pillinger cancelled the trip.

“I feel it’s too much of a risk,” says the 38-year-old, who made the decision to cancel after the Parsons Green tube attack last Friday. “I’ve got two young children… I wouldn’t put them in harm’s way and that’s what I feel like I’d be doing by taking them to London at the moment.”

Pillinger is not isolated in her decision. Although it is difficult to count the precise impact of terrorism on London tourism, the Westminster Bridge attack in March and London Bridge attack in June saw school trips being cancelled and many changing their plans to visit the capital. Headlines after terror often speak of resilient city-dwellers keeping calm and carrying on, but the effect of terrorism on the psyche – and plans – of others in the country is little discussed.
Adele's son, via Adele Pillinger
“I’m frightened. I’m genuinely frightened,” says Pillinger. “I feel genuinely sorry for you guys [Londoners] because you kind of have to crack on with it. I’m sure if it was happening on our doorstep we’d probably feel the same way… but I wouldn’t visit for pleasure at the moment, I can make a decision to not do it.” Instead, Pillinger plans to take her family mountain-biking in Wales.  

Cori Clarke, a 30-year-old teaching assistant from York, has recently decided against taking her six-year-old son Jude to visit his great-grandmother, who lives in London. “Last summer I took my daughter for a few days in London, a sort of girls’ weekend, and this year was going to be my son’s turn. But with what’s happened, I’m just not going to take him.”

Although she’s aware it may sound hypocritical, Clarke does agree with people who say that cancelling plans is “letting the terrorists win” – and she even persuaded her mother against cancelling her own separate trip, planned for November. “I would say you can’t let these people stop your plans, which I know is contradictory,” explains Clarke, “but I don’t want my son seeing anything; I think he’d be absolutely terrified if anything happened… I just thought it’s not worth it basically.”

Many other parents face similar decisions to Pillinger’s and Clarke’s. Primary school children were trapped in the Houses of Parliament during the Westminster attack in March, and schools across the country have been reassessing their planned trips to London. If schools go ahead with their plans, mums and dads then face the difficult decision of whether or not to isolate their children by pulling them out of the trip.

“I just said no, it just seemed too recent,” says Milli Brazier, a 27-year-old from Southend, Essex, who pulled her nine-year-old daughter out of a trip to visit the Science Museum after the Westminster attack. Though the school originally intended to cancel the trip, it went ahead after parents complained. Brazier and a few other parents decided against letting their children go.

“To be honest the school’s not the most organised school and the thought of if anything did happen… the idea of the school not being able to organise the children and keep them safe…” Brazier trails off. “I think as a parent if you’re not comfortable sending your child anywhere… if it’s not right for you as a parent, then you shouldn’t do it.”
Milli and her family, via Milli Brazier
Like Pillinger, the mother from Silsend, Brazier feels that the rest of the country doesn’t have to “carry on” like Londoners do after attacks. “If you live in London you have to carry on, but if you’re making an unnecessary trip to me it just seems a little bit pointless to take that risk when you don’t need to,” she says. “If I didn’t have children I’d probably do it myself but it’s different when you have children.”

Neither Pillinger, Brazier or Clarke know when they will feel comfortable enough to visit the capital again. “I don’t feel the government is doing enough to make people feel safe,” says Pillinger. When people accuse her of letting the terrorists “win” by changing her plans, she has a succinct reply.

“I would say that I think they’re already winning,” she says, “because we’re not doing anything about it. Everyone’s entitled to feel how they feel about it but I think they’re already winning because I’m frightened…

“It’s not normal what’s happening, it’s not normal and it’s not right and I do think the government needs to get a grip on it and do something more about it.”

By the end of the year, it will perhaps be easier to see the financial impact terrorism has had on London’s tourist industry. It's worth noting that, at present, you're more likely to be killed by a dog or by hot water than by a terrorist. But regardless, it is clear that some families' perception of the capital has changed. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.