Is it really our intention to make it easier for the next Jimmy Savile?
Alistair McAlpine’s libel ‘case’ – still untried in a proper Court of Law – is full of holes, according to legal opinion (given to The Slog and appearing elsewhere in the media this weekend) in relation to social networking sites. It is also becoming obvious that Andrew Reid is not St Phil Anthrope.
‘ITV has agreed to pay Lord McAlpine £125,000 in damages plus legal costs, in a settlement over Phillip Schofield’s onscreen blunder that linked several Conservative politicians with allegations of child sex abuse’ the Guardian reported two days ago. But as with so many things in the Guardian, ‘onscreen blunder that linked several Conservative politicians with allegations of child sex abuse’ simply doesn’t fit the facts.
As The Slog was at pains to point out following the BBC’s pathetic collapse in the face of threats, McAlpine’s name was not mentioned at any point during the Newsnight programme. Similarly, without their already existing presence on the internet, nothing in ITV’s This Morning show would’ve led anyone apart from a clairvoyant to deduce any connection between Alistair McAlpine and paedophilia.
Of course, the simple admission from McScalpine that he had a second cousin also spookily called McAlpine (who used to regularly turn up at his Golf Club covered in 12 year old caddies wearing shorts) would have explained the mistake made by (a) the BBC and then (b) Twitter users as to the identity of the man guilty of infant-buggery on an industrial scale. However, Lord McAlpine (and his brother Sir William, and the Mail on Sunday columnist David Rose) chose not to share the information with us. His Lordship has now erected a spurious defamation case against the two TV contractors, rendering him better off to the tune of some £310,000, kerr-ching Ithangyoo.
But just how sturdy is Alistair’s erection? The more I take legal opinion on it, the more it becomes clear that this defamation ‘case’ is both untried….and something of a sieve when it comes to being legally enforcible. The following opinion is from The Slog’s own counsel, who unsurprisingly wishes to remain anonymous on the grounds that one scrounger like me getting these learned opinions for free is more than enough:
“The McAlpine case is weak on three grounds. First, the evidence that his reputation was maligned by contemporary tweeting is flakey, given the pre-existence of internet rumours going back a long way; second, suing individual tweeters for £500 could easily be construed by a Judge as a ridiculous not to say greedy valuation to put on one quite possibly neutral enquiry of others; and third, singling out Twitter alone is preposterous in the context of a multivariate world of online social networking. You have Facebook, Linkedin, blog threads and a dozen other equally effective ways of innocently transmitting speculation – up to and including word of mouth gossip in the office. To set a precedent in favour of civil prosecutions against mass opinion and gossip would be ridiculous. Further, we suspect that any higher Court (especially one within the EU’s legal framework) if faced with an appeal against any judgement favouring such a view would overturn the verdict without exception.”
‘The issue of intent is much murkier with regard to mentioning someone’s name on Twitter – especially if Mr X’s guilt or innocence in relation to the media expose was inconclusive at the time. Twitter users were simply commenting in real-time on what they were seeing, without any premeditated malicious intent,’ remarks another online source.
I’m told that Sally Bercow has been given similar advice, and so we must now wait to see who the first British citizen with the balls to tell McAlpine and Reid to f**k off might be. I couldn’t possibly speculate on that, because I simply don’t know. But one or two facts from Andrew Reid’s adventurous past are emerging.
Andrew Reid does tend to fall out with people rather a lot. When one half of Reid Minty in 2008, he sued three former employees for breach of fiduciary obligations, alleging that the trio took three substantial clients with them when leaving the firm. In 99% of cases, this sort of attack doesn’t stick because it falls foul of ‘restraint of trade’ and the clients testifying that they have chosen to go with the new breakaway. When challenged, Reid backed off. “Reid’s claim is entirely misconceived and without foundation,” one of the escapees told The Lawyer, “Litigation of this nature against one’s former partners does nothing to advance the good standing of the profession.”
True, given his tone of voice over the McAlpine money-demands, Andrew wasn’t exactly advancing his profession; the only thing I would quibble about is whether that ‘profession’ has ever had any good standing. Says a former colleague of Reid, “He was vindictive, and over-fond of using his own firm’s resources to fire writs at everyone. He is the ambulance chaser’s ambulance chaser. But above all, he’s impossible to get on with.”
We must assume that as Lord McAlpine is such a doddery, half-demented yet innocent old codger – and thus something of a naif in such matters – he chose Mr Reid without thinking too hard about it. We must asume this, because Alistair would sue us all if we suggested otherwise. But either way, we are about to find out if bluff and bluster will win the hand.
Sally Bercow, Alan Davies and Guardian columnist George Monbiot have been formally told now that they face damages for being among the naughty “high profile Tweeters”….which McAlpine and Reid define as ‘people with more than 500 followers’. This too is a figure plucked from the air: why not 5,000? Or 50,000?
Bercow, who has 56,000 followers, tweeted: ‘Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*’. Frankly, any judge directing to convict on the basis of that would be asking for his head in a tumbril basket. If his Lordship is seriously suggesting that it should henceforth be deemed libellous to sarcastically suggest you don’t know why someone is trending, then we might as well all go home and have our lips sewn up. It is a straightforward attack on freedom of comment, falling within the guidelines referred to above: ‘Twitter users were simply commenting in real-time on what they were seeing, without any premeditated malicious intent’.
The broader issue here, however, is the freedom of the media to seek out and reveal serious wrongdoing. Ranged largely on the side of such perpetrators are a dozen or so unscrupulous firms in London who specialise in issuing bully-boy denials. This coming week, The Leveson Enquiry reports. It is now highly likely that an Enquiry set up following a public outcry against the invasive practices of Newscorp will make it easier for the government and police force that were in league with Newscorp to get away with it again next time. Rupert Murdoch will remain an influential, unhealthy operator at the top of British politics, and no doubt – once the dust has settled – return to his old strategy of threatening to reveal the peccadillos of anyone who speaks out.
So everything is just fine then, and British justice triumphs once more.