UK court: Lawmaker's wife's tweet was libelous

AP News
Posted: May 24, 2013 5:16 PM

LONDON (AP) — A tweet posted by the wife of Britain's parliamentary speaker about a politician wrongly linked to child sex abuse was libelous, the High Court ruled Friday.

A BBC report last year led to widespread Internet chatter that falsely linked politician Alistair McAlpine to decades-old child sex abuse. The broadcaster didn't name McAlpine, but has paid him damages.

Sally Bercow, wife of Speaker John Bercow, said she has settled a libel case brought by McAlpine after the High Court decided that her 2012 tweet naming the politician to her then-56,000 followers was defamatory.

Bercow had previously apologized for the tweet, which read "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? (asterisk)Innocent face(asterisk)." She had denied, however, that the message was defamatory, arguing that it was conversational.

But McAlpine's lawyers had argued that it pointed a "finger of blame" during a media firestorm, and Judge Michael Tugendhat rejected Bercow's stance that the tweet merely posed a question.

Tugendhat said that the words "innocent face" would be understood by any "reasonable reader" as being "insincere and ironical."

Following the judge's ruling, Bercow said she had accepted a previous settlement offer made by McAlpine's lawyers. Bercow didn't disclose the sums involved, but said that it would be an "understatement" to say she was surprised and disappointed by the ruling.

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"Today's ruling should be seen as a warning to all social media users," Bercow added. "Things can be held to be seriously defamatory, even when you do not intend them to be defamatory and do not make any express accusation. On this, I have learned my own lesson the hard way."