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20 November 2012

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.

By Alex Andreou

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”?

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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.