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McAlpine v Bercow to be listed for preliminary hearing on meaning of tweet

In McAlpine v Bercow [2013] EWHC 981 (QB) Mr Justice Tugendhat granted an application by the Claimant Lord McAlpine for a preliminary hearing to be held to determine the meaning of the Defendant sally Bercow's tweet of 4 December 2012 - 'Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*'.

The tweet was sent two days after the BBC's Newsnight broadcast a report which made allegations that a politician from the Thatcher era had sexually abused boys in a care home in the 1970s and 1980s.  Newsnight did not name the politician in question.  The Claimant is arguing the following, as per paragraphs 6.2-6.5 of his Particulars of Claim:-

"6.2. Twitter's homepage identifies topics or people which/who are 'trending' on the social media website at that particular time. A subject or person will 'trend' because it or he is being mentioned a substantial number of times and there is a material change in how frequently that subject or person is being mentioned. something or someone will trend when it or he is breaking news on Twitter.

6.3. In the past, Twitter users have used Twitter to identify alleged wrongdoers and others whom the traditional media have not identified when reporting on a story. This has included, but is not limited to, the campaign by some Twitter users in 2011 to identify the footballer Ryan Giggs as the person who had obtained an injunction to prevent the disclosure of his extra-marital affair and an anonymity order protecting his identity in relation to that affair. Twitter users tweeted numerous unsubtle tweets about Mr Giggs and made concerted efforts to get his name trending.

6.4. After the Newsnight report referred to in paragraph 3 above, there was criticism by some Twitter users of the BBC's decision not to 'name names'.

6.5. The above facts and matters or a sufficient number of them would have been known to a substantial but unquantifiable number of unidentifiable readers of the Tweet and, in the premises, those publishees would have understood the words complained of to bear the meaning set out in paragraph 6 above."

The Defendant accepts sending the tweet and no other defence has been advanced.  The Defendant's position is simply that her tweet does not carry the defamatory meaning pleaded or any other defamatory meaning.

The only other issue between the parties is, if the words are found to be defamatory, the level of damages to be awarded.  The Defendant has pointed to compensation paid to the Claimant by other parties in relation to allegations which are alleged to have a similar meaning to that pleaded by him.  Damages can be reduced pursuant to section 12 of the Defamation Act 1952 to take such matters into account.

The Defendant argued that a separate preliminary hearing was not necessary as it would increase costs.   Mr Justice Tugendhat accepted that two hearings were likely to more expensive that one - if there were to be two hearings - but that this was a case where furthering the overriding objective [of the Civil Procedure Rules] required that the actual meaning of words complained of be determined at as early a stage as possible.   Accordingly, the application was allowed.

A full copy of the judgment can be found below:-


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