Twitter can sometimes be a dangerous place to comment, politician after politician and the public can sometimes fall foul of the law.
One high profile case is that of a tweet by Commons Speaker's wife Sally Bercow about Lord McAlpine.
She posted a ditto after Newsnight ran with a story implicated the former Conservative Party treasurer in allegations of sex abuse at Bryn Estyn children's home in the 1970s and 1980s.
The tweet was libelous, and Lord McAlpine has taken Ms. Bercow to Court and they have found in his favour.
Mrs Bercow has always denied that the tweet - "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*" - was defamatory, but lawyers for the peer said it pointed "the finger of blame" at him during a media frenzy.
Lord McAlpine said it meant he was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care, and he wants damages.
Recently on the blog, a SNP supporter wrote in to say this to me:
“This is ground breaking shit man and nae comments whats wrong wi people that they cannae see this big fat smelly shite is bang on the money what a pity he is a walter mitty who has invented a bio for himself that stinks as much as his oxters and scrotum far oot man I need a scare crow fur ma neeps whit are ye daan this summer apart fae nae washing and creeping aboot the parks at nicht looking fur a blow job fae a guy fuck of and die ya big fat smelly cunt”.
Apparently they didn’t like my article on how the SNP are denying ordinary working class Scots life chances. The hatemonger states I am a homosexual who seeks “blowjobs” in public parks.
This individual is a sicko, it is done to harassment and intimidate, but I wouldn’t be feart and will continue to write and speak out as I see fit.
As to Ms. Bercow’s troubles, there will now be another hearing at a later date to decide damages.
That is unless Ms. Berocw and McAlpine can reach agreement; McAlpine has previously won six figure damages from the BBC and ITV, so Ms. Bercow is on a sticky wicket.
In mitigation, Mr Justice Tugendhat, in London, has heard that Mrs Bercow promptly tweeted her apologies, and she also provided letters apologising for the distress caused and making clear that the underlying allegations were untrue.
In a statement following the ruling, Mrs Bercow said:
"Today the High Court found that my tweet constituted a serious libel, both in its natural meaning and as an innuendo. To say I'm surprised and disappointed by this is an understatement. However, I will accept the ruling as the end of the matter. I remain sorry for the distress I have caused Lord McAlpine and I repeat my apologies. I have accepted an earlier offer his lawyers made to settle this matter."
Although we have seen people in public fall from grace and sometimes spectacularly so, this was a story that I didn’t blog on as there seem to be a bit of a witch hunt because of the Jimmy Saville stories.
As we have seen, many household names, people in the public domain for decades are now accused of sexual crimes, their trials are in progress: and the scale, is in some respects breathtaking.
Andrew Reid of RMPI Solicitors said:
"The apologies previously received from Mrs Bercow did not concede that her tweet was defamatory. Clearly she must now accept this fact. The failure of Mrs Bercow to admit that her tweet was defamatory caused considerable unnecessary pain and suffering to Lord McAlpine and his family over the past six months. With knowledge of the judgment, I am pleased to be able to say that Mrs Bercow has finally seen sense and has accepted an offer of settlement, which Lord McAlpine made back in January. Mr Justice Tugendhat's judgment is one of great public interest and provides both a warning to, and guidance for, people who use social media. It highlights how established legal principles apply to social media, and how the courts take account of the particular way in which social media operates when reaching decisions on whether publications are defamatory."
In the statement, Mrs Bercow said:
"In November 2012, I tweeted the question 'Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*'. I did not tweet this with malice, and I did not intend to libel Lord McAlpine. I was being conversational and mischievous, as was so often my style on Twitter. I very much regret my tweet, and I promptly apologised publicly and privately to Lord McAlpine for the distress I caused him. I also made two offers of compensation. Lord McAlpine issued proceedings and the last few months have been a nightmare. I am sure he has found it as stressful as I have. Litigation is not a pleasant experience for anyone”.
Quite so ma’am!
Well, the rule of thumb is quite clear, if you tweet or blog, then simply tell the truth, so far that is still legal.
Ms. Bercow better ask her husband, John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons for a loan, I suspect she will need to scrap a few quid together.
The Campaign for Human Rights at Glasgow University