Lord McAlpine to take legal action against tweeters
A lawyer for Lord McAlpine today said the former Conservative Party treasurer will be taking legal action against "a lot of people" who linked his name with unfounded allegations of child sex abuse.
Solicitor Andrew Reid said that legal letters would be sent not only to broadcasters - including ITV's This Morning programme - but also to individuals who mentioned the peer's name on the internet, particularly Twitter.
A number of well-known people - including Speaker's wife Sally Bercow and journalist George Monbiot - were on a "very long list" of tweeters who mentioned Lord McAlpine on the micro-blogging website, said Mr Reid, warning that their messages could end up costing them "a lot of money".
And he said that This Morning presenter Phillip Schofield, by handing Prime Minister David Cameron a list of Conservatives which he had found on the internet, had effectively encouraged viewers to seek them out.
Mr Reid called on anyone who thought they may have defamed the peer to contact him to reach a settlement, warning that this may be the cheapest outcome for them.
Lord McAlpine has been contacted by many members of the public urging him to take action to end the phenomenon of "trial by Twitter", which has seen users of the website send out defamatory comments - which can quickly be distributed to thousands or millions of people - with apparent impunity, he said.
Mr Reid's comments came as the BBC said it expects to reach a settlement with Lord McAlpine today over the botched Newsnight investigation which initially reported that a senior Tory from the Thatcher era had been accused of child abuse.
Asked on BBC Radio 4's World at One whether Lord McAlpine was considering further action, Mr Reid said: "We are beyond the considering at this point. Very sadly, we are going to have to take action against a lot of people.
"The next person on our list is in fact the This Morning programme, run by ITV, where Phillip Schofield managed to embarrass the Prime Minister... and then destroy my client's reputation.
"What he did really was very, very low, and I'm amazed it was allowed, absolutely amazed. It sent everyone onto the internet - those that couldn't read what was there, naturally, would be made even more keen to have gone onto the internet to see who was being referred to."
Mr Reid explained the next steps he intends to take against those he accuses of defaming the peer.
"They will receive a letter before action, which I think is some 13 or 14 pages, and they will have 48 hours to respond, in the same way that we have dealt with the BBC, because the sooner this is dealt with the better for all parties," he said.
"It is a very long list. There are other broadcasters on it. We will be getting to them, but hopefully they will come to us, because it makes sense to do so. This is so vile, so disgusting, that it's easier to come and just get it over with. We want it over with as well.
"We have been inundated by the public who have wanted us to deal with this problem of Twitter, and have encouraged and in some cases have actually offered us funds."
Twitter "is not a place where you can gossip and say the nastiest things possible with impunity", said Mr Reid. "It isn't going to be that and we are about to demonstrate that."
Mr Reid explained how he had compiled the list of tweeters who mentioned Lord McAlpine's name - along with those who sent on the tweets. Although many of the original messages have now been deleted, he warned that this would not protect those responsible for them.
"We've 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 really have all the information," he said.
"Not only do we have it, but we have managed to find a couple of firms of experts who are able to produce the pre-tweets, the post-tweets, the effect of the tweets and the re-tweets.
"So what starts as a sort of maybe one (recipient) ends up as 100,000 or more in some cases."
He revealed that Lord McAlpine has already received two apologies from Mr Monbiot, who told him: "I am feeling worse about this than about anything else I have ever done, though I realise that is as nothing by comparison to what you have gone through with the help of my stupidity and thoughtlessness."
The solicitor said: "There are a lot of other people who have done exactly what he has done and they really need to come and sort this out. 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.
"What we are basically saying to people is, 'look, we know - in inverted commas - who you are, we know exactly the extent of what you have done, and it's easier to come forward and see us and apologise and arrange a settlement with us, because in the long run this is the cheapest and best way to bring this matter to an end'...
"There are a lot of them and I think that some of them are well-known people. I would say Mrs Bercow would be quite well-known. She hasn't yet been in touch to apologise and I'm most surprised that she hasn't done so. Hopefully she will and she will reach an arrangement with us because we are listening to people. I'd rather do that, because it saves a lot of time and cost for them. She has left us with no choice."
People need to realise that Twitter "is not just a sort of closed gossip coffee-shop amongst a few friends", he said.
He added: "It's not like that at all, it goes out to hundreds of thousands of people and you must take responsibility.
"The public are fed up with it. We are being pushed and pushed to get on and actually end trial by Twitter."
In a message on Twitter, Mrs Bercow said: "I guess I'd better get some legal advice then. Still maintain was not a libellous tweet - just foolish."