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Lord McAlpine has promised to end “trial by Twitter” by announcing an unprecedented series of libel actions against people who used the website to link him wrongly to child abuse allegations as BBC pays £185,000 damages.The former Conservative Party treasurer said yesterday that he had been “terrified” when he became “a figure of public hatred” because of people naming him as the subject of a Newsnight report wrongly claiming a senior Tory was a paedophile.
Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the Commons, and George Monbiot, a columnist for the Guardian are among those who will be pursued by Lord McAlpine for using the microblogging site to tweet his name after the Newsnight programme was broadcast.
Lord McAlpine’s solicitor, Andrew Reid, said the “nasty” tweets would “cost people a lot of money”, warning the guilty parties: “We know who you are.”
He added: “Twitter is not just a closed coffee shop among friends. It goes out to hundreds of thousands of people and you must take responsibility for it.
“It is not a place where you can gossip and say things with impunity, and we are about to demonstrate that.”
Lord McAlpine’s lawyers have hired a team of experts to collate the offending Twitter messages, including those that have been deleted, as well as so-called “re-tweets” in which one user republishes a message posted by someone else.
The action was described as “unprecedented” by Lord Woolf, the former lord chief justice, who added that there was no reason Twitter users should be treated differently from newspapers that published defamatory comments.
In other developments:
- The BBC agreed to pay Lord McAlpine damages of £185,000 plus costs over the Newsnight report of Nov 2.
- Lord McAlpine told friends that Lord Patten of Barnes, the chairman of the BBC Trust, should consider his position.
- Phillip Schofield and four other staff on ITV’s This Morning programme were disciplined over last week’s ambush of David Cameron with a list of alleged Tory child abusers live on air.
- Ofcom launched an investigation into the BBC and ITV after receiving four complaints about Newsnight and 415 complaints about This Morning.
- Dave Lee Travis, the former Radio 1 disc jockey, was arrested on suspicion of sex offences.
In his first interview since Newsnight’s infamous broadcast of Nov 2, Lord McAlpine told the BBC that he had been “shattered” when his name was “spread all over the world” by users of Twitter and other internet sites.
He said: “Suddenly to find yourself a figure of public hatred — unjustifiably — is terrifying.”
The 70-year-old, who has heart trouble, said the settlements he was seeking from Twitter users would be “a warning: don’t go there”.
Sources close to Lord McAlpine told The Daily Telegraph that about a dozen Twitter users were likely to be targeted. They include Iain Overton, the former editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who sent out a tweet before the Newsnight investigation, suggesting a senior Tory would be exposed as a paedophile that night.
Although he did not name anyone, his tweet helped to create an online frenzy in which Lord McAlpine’s name was widely circulated even before the programme was broadcast.
The allegations were later withdrawn after the former care home resident who made them, Steve Messham, admitted he had made a mistake.
Mr Reid, Lord McAlpine’s solicitor, told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One: “We have been inundated by the public who have wanted us to deal with this problem of Twitter. We have been watching people who have been taking down what they put on Twitter. What they don’t seem to understand is that once it’s there you can’t take it down. And, what’s more, we already have all the information. We have managed to find a couple of firms of experts who have managed to produce the pre-tweets, the post tweets, the effect of the tweets and the re-tweets. What starts at one ends up as 100,000 or more in some cases.
“Let it be a lesson to everybody that trial by Twitter or trial by the internet is a very nasty way of hurting people unnecessarily and it will cost people a lot of money.”
Appealing to those who had tweeted Lord McAlpine’s name to come forward, he added: “Some of them are well known. I would say Mrs Bercow would be one. She hasn’t been in touch.”
Mrs Bercow, who has 57,000 Twitter followers, tweeted after the broadcast: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*.” Yesterday she wrote: “I guess I’d better get some legal advice then. Still maintain was not a libellous tweet — just foolish.” Mr Monbiot, who has 55,000 followers, has apologised twice for tweeting Lord McAlpine’s name.
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