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Sally Bercow tweet was defamatory

Lord McAlpine has succeeded in his high profile libel claim against sally Bercow after Mr Justice Tugendhat found that a tweet she published on 4 November 2012 was indeed defamatory of the Tory peer.  Following the decision (McAlpine v Bercow [2013] EWHC 1342 (QB)) the parties have agreed terms of settlement.

The judgment followed a High Court hearing on 16 May 2013 to determine the meaning of the Defendant's tweet:-

'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.  It subsequently transpired that the source of the story had wrongly identified the person who had abused them.

The Claimant sued on the basis that readers of the tweet would understand it to mean that he was the subject of the Newsnight story.

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

It was common ground that the term *Innocent face* was meant like a stage direction or 'emoticon' describing the expression on the Defendant's face.  The Claimant asserted this was meant ironically, whereas the Defendant claimed it was meant sincerely.

Mr Justice Tugendhat held that readers would have linked the tweet to Lord McAlpine by virtue of their knowledge of current affairs or because of the fact he was a peer of the realm who was 'trending' on Twitter for no other reason.   He found that the "...the reader would reasonably infer that the Defendant had provided the last piece in the jigsaw."  The Judge went on to conclude that, in its natural and ordinary defamatory meaning, the tweet would be understood to mean the Claimant was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care.   Tugendhat J indicated that if he was wrong about the 'natural and ordinary meaning' that the tweet bore an 'innuendo meaning' to the same effect.

Following the decision Ms Bercow made the below statement:-

"In November 2012, I tweeted the question Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*. I did not tweet this with malice, and I did not intend to libel Lord McAlpine. I was being conversational and mischievous, as was so often my style on Twitter.

I very much regret my tweet, and I promptly apologised publicly and privately to Lord McAlpine for the distress I caused him. I also made two offers of compensation. Lord McAlpine issued proceedings and the last few months have been a nightmare. I am sure he has found it as stressful as I have. Litigation is not a pleasant experience for anyone.

Today the High Court found that my tweet constituted a serious libel, both in its natural meaning and as an innuendo. To say Im surprised and disappointed by this is an understatement. 

However, I will accept the ruling as the end of the matter. I remain sorry for the distress I have caused Lord McAlpine and I repeat my apologies. I have accepted an earlier offer his lawyers made to settle this matter.

Todays ruling should be seen as a warning to all social media users. 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.

I would like to thank my legal team for their wise counsel and my family and friends for their unequivocal support throughout the last few months."

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


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