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 Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.