Wronged peer launches legal war to end 'trial by Twitter'
THE peer wrongly named in a child abuse furore has promised to end "trial by Twitter" by launching an unprecedented series of libel actions against people who used the website to link him wrongly to child abuse allegations.
Former Conservative Party treasurer Lord McAlpine said yesterday 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 the 'Guardian' columnist George Monbiot 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. His 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 that the time had come for people to realise that: "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.
Lord McAlpine's lawyers have hired a team of experts to collate the offending Twitter messages, including those which have been deleted, as well as so-called "retweets" in which one user republishes a message posted by someone else, reaching up to 100,000 people at a time. In other developments:
-- The BBC agreed to pay Lord McAlpine damages of £185,000 (€230,000) plus costs over the 'Newsnight' report of November 2.
-- Lord McAlpine told friends that Lord Patten, 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'.
-- The former Radio 1 disc jockey Dave Lee Travis was arrested on suspicion of sex offences. He was later released on bail pending further inquiries.
In his first interview since Newsnight's notorious broadcast of November 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. The 70-year-old, who has heart trouble, said the settlements he intended to get from Twitter users would be "a warning – don't go there". Sources close to Lord McAlpine said around 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.
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 made a mistake. Mr Reid, his solicitor, told the BBC: "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."
Mrs Bercow, who has 57,000 Twitter followers, tweeted after the programme was 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." (© Daily Telegraph, London)