Alistair McAlpine has instructed lawyers. They have settled with the BBC – for £185k plus both sides’ costs, with statements to follow – and are now poring over Twitter. For the latter, this is something new and potentially very important, although exactly how m’Learned friends can go after someone who merely observes that a name is trending could be a difficult one to prove.
Miraculously, though, those sneering at the likes of George Monbiot and Sally Bercow do not appear to have stopped and thought about the potential consequences of this action. If McAlpine’s lawyers successfully obtain redress against Monbiot and Ms Bercow, neither of whom referred to the infamous Newsnight feature, rather more claims could follow.
After all, McAlpine’s legal team are arguing over such concepts as reputational damage, as well as the more straightforward ones like dishonest and malicious defamation, and especially that which is premeditated and therefore cannot be excused as some kind of accident. Using Twitter as a means of spreading that kind of smear is not confined to peers of the realm.
And that is why many out there in the Twittersphere, along with a posse of lawyers prepared to operate on a pro bono basis, are watching the McAlpine proceedings with interest. This is because accusations of paedophilia – as well as a number of other unsavoury smears – have been the stock in trade of some on Twitter in the past. So what other malicious assertions have been made?
Well, for starters, there is the old chestnut of stalking. This has become the go-to term of abuse for many who have an aversion to criticism: in order to shut the critics up, they are smeared as “stalkers”. The term cannot be interpreted other than as a directly pejorative one: it is as loaded as Billy Connolly’s F-word. Yet many, including those in elective office, bandy it about without a thought.
There are a whole range of other malicious terms deployed in the same vein, too, but shouting “stalker”, without any further reinforcement, is itself beyond the pale. To make such an accusation is to equate the target with those who bombard slebs with unwanted communications, threats, visits, and worse. It may not be quite as nasty as shouting “paedo”, but if the latter term is actionable, then “stalker” is equally so.
Yet nobody seems to have woken up to this inconvenient fact. Perhaps there is an assumption that this can be passed off as exercise of free speech. But there is free speech, and there is hate speech. False accusations of stalking, merely for a bit of fun or to silence someone of inconvenient thought, are firmly in the latter category. And they are highly likely to satisfy the reputational damage criterion.
The sneering may continue for now, but pride, remember, comes before a fall.