The reasoning for Lord McAlpine’s libel action against Sally Bercow just does not stack up
Sally Bercow, the speaker’s wife, is a loudmouth. We don’t dispute that. There’s little she won’t say or do to keep herself in the public eye and whether draped in nothing other than a sheet in the Palace of Westminster or fooling around in the Celebrity Big Brother house, she comes across as a bit of a fool.
The current libel action against Mrs Bercow, though, just doesn’t make sense. It is an overreaction on the part of Lord McAlpine and rather reminds us of the case of Oscar Wilde and the Marquess of Queensberry.
Both cases feature public figures that ought to have known better than to enter the courtroom. Wilde, like Bercow, loved the limelight and Queensberry, as with McAlpine, probably would have been preferred to have been left in peace. Both are cases that acres of press inches have and will continue to be devoted to, but as the defamation action against Bercow involves the relatively new medium of Twitter, it certainly will set precedents.
When allegations, now accepted as false, about Lord McAlpine surfaced on Twitter, Sally Bercow tweeted this message to her 60,000 followers:
“Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*”
This single message is the basis of the action against Bercow and last week, Sir Edward Garnier QC, for the peer, told the High Court:
“We are not talking about some kitchen table blogger addressing perhaps herself and one other person. We are talking about a pretty widespread readership.”
Mrs Bercow’s tweet, to our minds, was not especially contentious and her following is not that great. The actor Stephen Fry, for example, has 5,700,000 followers on the site whilst Jeremy Clarkson has 1,700,000. The word “trending” similarly is used widely every day on the social media site and it indicates that a particular topic is being widely discussed. This indeed was the case with the word “McAlpine” that day.
Equally, Bercow did not specifically suggest Lord McAlpine to be a paeodophile (which many others did) and she has since apologised both by Twitter and letter.
The courts may well take an opposing view but truly, we’d suggest, this is a case that should never have reached the courtroom.