A tweet that merely said, 'Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*' has been found to be defamatory by a high court judge in the UK.
In a landmark case that could have drastic implications for users of Twitter in Britain and elsewhere, the Honourable Mr Justice Tugendhat found that Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of Parliament John Bercow, defamed Lord McAlpine.
Bercow will have to pay at least her own legal fees, which may run to many thousands of pounds, as well as those of her accuser and possibly more in compensation, although that is yet to be determined.
Lord McAlpine was mistakenly identified in November last year as the senior Tory politician accused of abusing children in a care home in Wales in the 1970s, as part of an investigation by the BBC's Panorama. His name was circulated on Twitter to the extent that it trended.
Sally Bercow claimed she was merely asking why that was. Lord McAlpine claimed her '*innocent face*' implied that she knew and that her followers should find out for themselves. The wonderfully named judge presiding agreed with the peer and not the Speaker's wife.
"I find that the tweet meant, in its natural and ordinary defamatory meaning, that the Claimant was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care," Tugendhat writes in his judgement.
"If I were wrong about that, I would find that the tweet bore an innuendo meaning to the same effect. But if it is an innuendo meaning it is one that was understood by that small number of readers who, before reading the tweet on 4 November, either remembered, or had learnt, that the Claimant had been a prominent Conservative politician in the Thatcher years."
"I will accept the ruling as the end of the matter," Bercow told the BBC. "I remain sorry for the distress I have caused Lord McAlpine and I repeat my apologies. 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'm no lawyer, but from a bare reading of the judgement it does seem Tugendhat understands very well how Twitter works, and how literate and politically engaged followers would understand its various quirks and parlance.
"In my judgment the reasonable reader would understand the words 'innocent face' as being insincere and ironical," the judge judges. "There is no sensible reason for including those words in the tweet if they are to be taken as meaning that the defendant simply wants to know the answer to a factual question."
I may well be incorrect, but I don't think there can be much argument with his thinking. This isn't some old buffer who hasn't heard of the Beatles. His job is to interpret the law as it applies to the modern world, and it seems to me he's done so.
The clear problem here is the law itself. Twitter is a very widely used service, and under the current libel laws, one badly thought-out message (especially if amplified beyond your control by other users retweeting) can land you in a world of extremely expensive trouble. The same is true of our laws around terrorism -- poor Paul Chambers lost two jobs as a result of his 'blow the airport sky high' joke.
You might well argue that as a public figure associated with the world of politics, Sally Bercow should be required to tweet more sensibly, and that's a point of view I have some sympathy with. High profile people should be held to a higher standard -- their libels are more damaging.
But even if there are only nominal damages awarded, a libel case is still very expensive for the average defendant. Is it really a sensible use of people's money to defend themselves for libels that cause little real harm? What is the damage done to free speech? Should people be scared of expressing what they believe to be the truth?
Lord McAlpine initially sued everyone who had tweeted allegations about him, but eventually settled with those with fewer than 500 followers, in return for a "very modest donation to Children in Need", according to the Guardian.
The Bercow case may be a tipping point in libel reform, but in the meantime: be very careful what you tweet.