Lord McAlpine, Wronged By BBC, Demands 10,000 People On Twitter Pay Up

from the mcalpine-effect dept

Folks in the UK have spent much of this month following the story of Lord McAlpine (Robert Alistair McAlpine) the former politician who worked for Margaret Thatcher. Earlier this month, the BBC reported on its Newsnight program that an unnamed former “senior” politician in the UK government was implicated in a child abuse scandal. People on Twitter quickly assumed from the description that it was McAlpine, and the story spread quickly. A few days later, the Guardian broke the story that it was a case of mistaken identity. That scandal has thrown the BBC into chaos over its reporting.

But, more interesting to us, is the fact that Lord McAlpine (not a Twitter user) has announced his intention to go after 10,000 Twitter users for either claiming he was the person in question or for retweeting someone else saying that. Some have already apologized for their tweets, but even among those who have, they claim that McAlpine’s lawyers are going to ridiculous lengths, with one person, Sally Bercow, who has apologized, also claiming that McAlpine’s lawyers are “ambulance chasers” and “big bullies.”

But the decision to force 10,000 people to pay up seems crazy:

Lawyers acting for Lord McAlpine have also drawn up a “very long list” of targets they intend to pursue for defamation, including the authors of 1,000 original tweets and a further 9,000 individuals who retweeted those messages.

Apparently if you’re “small time” you won’t have to pay as much:

Lord McAlpine’s solicitor, Andrew Reed, said last night that those with under 500 followers will be asked to make a donation to charity as part of a settlement, with an “administration fee” for sorting it out. He added that higher profile figures, such as Ms Bercow, are “a separate matter”.

Here’s the insane part: McAlpine claims that he’s doing this to “restore my reputation.” Demanding 10,000 people on Twitter pay up isn’t going to “restore” your reputation. It’s going to tarnish it. Yes, it’s pretty clear that McAlpine was wronged by the initial reports that suggested he was involved in the scandal. And the BBC is paying up handsomely for their mistake (apparently a six figure settlement has already been negotiated). But the news that the BBC’s report was false spread like wildfire. Everyone knows the report was false. Going after people on Twitter for talking about it doesn’t do anything more to restore his reputation, it just makes him look like a giant bully — and, in the process, calls much more attention to him and his tactics here.

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Comments on “Lord McAlpine, Wronged By BBC, Demands 10,000 People On Twitter Pay Up”

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Mark Townsend says:

Different Interpretations of 'Reputation'

I suspect that the people in whose minds Lord McAlpine wants his reputation restored are not the Twitterati (or indeed anyone with any gadget more sophisticated than a gramophone).

Whether he succeeds with this mass action remains to be seen but the fact that he is trying has raised both his profile and his reputation with a not insignificant percentage of the population. If he does succeed, even partially, his street cred will go off the charts.

Is this a cultural thing? I do not know but given the media goings on we have been having and that we continue to have, seeing someone stand up to a wave of “I can say what I want and no-one can stop me” is getting him quite a bit of support and not only from the old duffers brigade.

He is also using the opportunity to publicise some rather prominent people who have participated in the feeding frenzy. Sally Bercow for one may regret her “me too” tweets and the comments about the lawyers. (I do not think that a non UK audience can possible grasp the shock of the wife of the Speaker of the House (a title going back to 1377) being so intent on having her say in public).

Context? Today we hear that the ex Head of Communications for David Cameron and the woman who was Murdoch’s top operative are both getting done on bribery charges and the Levenson report is due out very soon.

Boojum (profile) says:

Reverse Streisand Effect

You know, I can think of no faster way for him to clear his name with his voters than to go after 10,000 tweeters and let the Streisand effect tell everyone that he’s not a pedophile. Remember, he’s not trying to remove the tweets or squash a website.. he’s wanting everyone to know and (more importantly) remember that these people were wrong about him.

Sueing them and letting everyone talk about it is probably cheaper than taking out ads all over the place to try and convince people it wasnt’ him.

Milton Freewater says:

Re: Reverse Streisand Effect

“You know, I can think of no faster way for him to clear his name with his voters than to go after 10,000 tweeters and let the Streisand effect tell everyone that he’s not a pedophile. Remember, he’s not trying to remove the tweets or squash a website.. he’s wanting everyone to know and (more importantly) remember that these people were wrong about him. “

Only a guilty man would try to force radio silence on the entire Internet when pedophilia is concerned.

If it’s illegal to retweet a crime story about the good Lord that happened to be false, the only way to ensure you’re compliant with the law is to never discuss crimes of any kind online. And the good Lord wants that because he’s … innocent?

Alex Macfie says:

Re: Re: Reverse Streisand Effect

So if someone denies an allegation over something seriously defamatory such as child abuse, and tries to prevent others from repeating the allegation, that implies they are guilty does it? If Lord McAlpine had been silent, people like you would probably be arguing the that showed his guilt as well. That sort of humpty-dumpty thinking, where anything about the accused is taken as evidence of guilt, is unfortunately very common in matters of child abuse allegations. People are even capable of inferring guilt in the same case from directly contradictory evidence. It means you can’t win.

The eejit (profile) says:

Re: Reverse Streisand Effect

Here’s the thing, though: the person it was claimed that he’d abused that made the biggest headlines had said it was a case of mistaken identity.

I think there’s marginally more fo a case here than there has been in pretty much any other case like this we’ve seen so far. I still don’t think it would get anywhere, but I think that this is one where the case is more “correct”.

Duke (profile) says:

A few points

There’s some fun stuff in this story, but I have to be careful so as not to defame Lord McAlpine or his solicitors (who are apparently specialists in physical injury/compensation cases – the pejorative term for whom is “ambulance chasers”).

However, this is what I think I can say:

First point. Twitter users had already named him as the suspect before Newsnight aired, which is why it is just about believable that the BBC could be liable (iirc I read something on Reddit about it that afternoon).

Second point. His Lordship has already recovered ?185,000 plus costs from the BBC. At least one expert in defamation law reckons that was about double what they owed.

Third point. Under English defamation law, while each “publication” (so each tweet and retweet) counts, and each has its own maximum damage award of ?275,000ish, the damages are meant to be compensatory (for his loss in reputation). Given his well-reported denial and the subsequent high-profile apologies, it is hard to imagine what his actual loss is.

Fourth point. Even if his reputation has been damaged (and not just for being brave/naive enough to try to sue 10,000 Twitter users, while not noticing Facebook, Reddit and anywhere else…), he can only recover that much in total, which means any damages award from those 10,000 can take into account the ?185,000 he has already received (or the ?500,000 he is rumoured to be getting from ITV).

Plus there’s a general rule that the courts don’t care about trivial/”de minimis” cases. Which is particularly relevant as there is a suggestion that he will be asking these 10,000 for a ?5 donation to charity.

Sadly, he may well get that. Not because his case deserves it (which he may or may not), but because the threat of legal action (particularly defamation cases) and the associated massive costs, tend to be enough to scare people into conceding.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: A few points

I keep hearing from the back of my mind this little birdy tweet out this word that keeps getting louder and louder in reference to this “Lord of Effluence”.

At first I thought it was bullshit, then It formed itself into the real word.


though being one of those Aussie upstart colonialist I’d still say Bullshit also fits this Toff. 😉

jameshogg says:

I refuse to take seriously the English libel system, especially when it allows Roman Polanski to sue Vanity Fair from France via video link on the grounds that a few of its copies that hit the U.K., through Amazon/Ebay/something-else-unpolicable, suggested that he had invoked his dead wife’s name in order to flirt with a woman, all while avoiding U.S. extradition for child sex offences and all supposedly, get this, in the name of the just cause of “protecting his reputation”.

The poison pen argument does have some merit to it, but the U.S. libel system is far superior to the English libel system. And I am not entirely sure how you would go around policing something that can go viral such as this case here. How is it realistic to get your every day Twitter user to not have any libellous presupposition in his internet chat whatsoever? Even a casual comment voiced the wrong way might be up for grabs by the courts. Indeed, I would contend that if such logic were to be put forward about 10,000 Twitter users, then newspapers and websites who reproduce MILLIONS of printed items should be thrown in jail if they even so much as quote words from a Tweeter that were deemed to be “highly offensive” enough for prison. Because even by merely quoting the words, they have to fall under the category of “passing on the offensiveness”, right?

The condition of keeping your libel lawsuits against the originator of the false claim, not the reproducers, may be a much better solution. I’ve read protests against this idea on the BBC that went along the lines of “Twitter isn’t just your casual pub-banter – it is a public platform. It has to fall under the same terms as a mass media journalistic platform.” Oh yeah? Just wait until that casual banter you could be having with your closest friend while walking down the street at night, potentially drunk, is recorded by somebody on a camera phone, intentionally or not, racks up millions of viral views on YouTube, and forces a lawsuit on your hands. Don’t you tell me that state mentality will not fall into the slippery slope of “well, I guess you have to watch what you say everywhere then.. those drunken yobs, eh?”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Something to ask

Say reputable “Magazine A” published something defaming to somebody Z, one or two days later “Magazine B” to “D” blindly copied the news from “A” without verifying the source.

Now Z wants to sue. He can surely sue “Magazine A” for defamation, but how about B, C and D?

The thing about Twitter is that it carrys some sort of publishing functionality. I think this kind of analogy could work.

Note that some twitter accounts have higher “reputation ranking” than the others, so when estimating the “damage” part of defamation, these Twitter accounts have arguably higher impact than some traditional magazines.

Xan Tok says:


I believe a majority of libel compensation is for loss of earnings due to malicious rumour. If Lord McAlpine had been a 29 year old teacher with two kids and a mortgage, facing job suspension, loss of earnings even social services monitoring then I can see where thousands come in handy, but this is an already very wealthy man who is not in fnancial hardship over this. Charity donation is about the noblest outcome I can see but I am detecting a backlash rising over this. Also people begging to ask why police are being expected to find all these tweeters if his lawyers web sweeper software was so powerful why do they need police back up and is this fair the tax payer has to fund this police action?

Xan Tok says:

Why Twitter and not Facebook?

Some have asked why Lord McAlpine seems too Twitter centric in his attack on defamers. Twitter is a public unit, what you say goes out, unlike Facebook which is a closed network of friends. Also Facebook allows wider scope to discuss the case, a group of friends are more likely to have a close discussion than a string of strangers on twitter who as I have seen, often use the media to enforce and reinforce a point without negotiation. Facebook discussions within a person’s private page presents a bigger problem that the exposed and public twitter. A person had a human right to discuss in privacy their news and views just as people have privacy within their own home to hold a view unchallenged. Your Facebook page, in which your statements are not public, is your castle and not to be pried into..

ThinkingOutLoud says:

Confuse a Lord

McAlpines ambulance chasers can be easily confused if people decide to play dirty. Whats to stop people sending in names and addresses picked randomly rom the phone book admitting to tweets they did not make. His ambulance chasers then end up sending threatening letters to people lots of whome probably werent even on twitter. They woudl be up in arms and the whoel ambulance chasing fisaco will look ridculous and wil be unworkable. Just thinking.

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