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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.