Social media is brilliant but it's time to tame the online libellers
After being wrongly identified as a paedophile, Lord McAlpine understandably wants redress. His methods could prove ground-breaking. Philip Bowern investigates.
It has been infuriating in recent years for print journalists and newspaper owners to watch as the contributors to social networking sites, where all manner of dubious material is posted, go unchallenged while those in the print media have to defend every transgression and guard against being sued.
What is the difference, we ask ourselves, between the letters pages of the Western Morning News, where – if a correspondent libels someone – the newspaper and its correspondent could have to pay damages, and the Twitter "pages" online, where different rules appear to apply?
The only difference seems to be that we – and our correspondents – take care to make sure nothing defamatory gets into print.
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Letter writers and a publisher giving them space on a page seem no different to those who post their remarks on a computer server. In fact, some popular contributors to the Twitter website reach bigger audiences than many traditional publishers or broadcasters and can do far more damage.
So if there is a problem with what is written on a social networking site it follows that – just as would be the case in print or on a radio or TV broadcast – those found to be at fault should be challenged to defend their remarks in the courts. Lord McAlpine and his lawyers, it seems, share that view.
The former Conservative Party treasurer was the subject – albeit unnamed – of a now notorious BBC Newsnight broadcast which implicated him in child sex abuse. The BBC has paid up close to £200,000 in damages.
The BBC didn't identify him directly, but a number of high-profile tweeters did and now Lord McAlpine is taking legal action against those individuals who linked him with paedophilia online.
The internet is clearly a wonderful medium. It has transformed the way we buy goods, find information, share personal stories, gather the news and watch entertainment. It has assisted in world-changing events, allowing the uprisings in Arab nations to gain the kind of mass support they so clearly needed and enabled oppressed peoples in many parts of the globe to get their messages out.
Ultimately, it could be argued, it has been used as a force for good to bring down corrupt and undemocratic regimes. But in the field of publishing news and comment, some mischievous or even malicious contributors to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been getting away with, if not murder, then certainly the destruction of many reputations for too long. If anyone has the means to stop it, it must be Lord McAlpine.
Of course the internet companies will argue that they cannot be responsible for the remarks their users put online. And some of those posting dubious comments will complain they were just repeating what they had heard to a few of their "followers".
In the days of paper and ink you could send a nasty note to a friend about a third party and, although that might technically count as "publication" – if the injured third party found out – the damage would be limited. Post a nasty and completely incorrect note online about someone's alleged sexual preferences for children, however, and it might well be read by hundreds, thousands or even millions of people.
Whether or not Lord McAlpine's analysis of the rights and wrongs of tweeting stand up in court is something for m'learned friends. But to suggest, as some defenders of online freedoms do, that any such crackdown would stifle free speech simply does not hold water.
We have a free press in this country and it manages to investigate, comment upon and generally keep close tabs on all sorts of wrongdoing. When it does step out of line there are well-trodden paths down which the aggrieved can go to get redress. When Lord Leveson reports, there may yet be even more.
As the Internet grows ever more powerful it is surely time to apply some of those same rules to the social networking sites and their contributors.
We have already seen criminal charges brought against those who use the internet to insult or incite others. Surely, applying the libel laws when reputations are damaged is the logical next step.
Let's be clear, Twitter is a brilliant invention. It is often the first place that breaks news and is a constant source of amusement, information and even inspiration for a whole generation. But it is not acceptable for reckless or malicious commentators to use its services to attack others with impunity.
Attempts have been made before to precisely define the law and how it applies to online operations in this field. We must hope that Lord McAlpine's action finally gives us some definitive answers.