Be Careful What you Tweet – A lesson Sally Bercow learnt the hard way!

The ruling issued by the High Court today in the matter of Sally Bercow versus Lord McAlpine strikes a number of critical cords where the issue of online defamation is concerned.

The High Court found that Ms. Bercow tweeting about Lord McAlpine in the wake of the BBC Newsnight program that implicated a Thatcher-era politician as being responsible for sexual abuse of young boys, was libellous. The libellous ‘sting’ being that her tweet, in its ordinary and normal meaning, meant that Lord McAlpine was a "paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care".

Ms. Bercow had protested, saying that was not her intended meaning, there was no malice behind her tweet, and she did not mean to libel Lord McAlpine in any way. So what? The Court had limited concern for her intention. It is not about her intention, or how she wanted her tweeting to come across to her numerous followers. It was how the reasonable ordinary person would have considered her comments, which was, unfortunately for Ms. Bercow, defamatory and therefore, an example of online defamation. Even apologising in four subsequent tweets did not make a blind bit of difference to Ms. Bercow’s defence.

Ms Bercow pragmatically says that she learnt the hard way, and that this should be "a warning to all social media users". She is fundamentally correct. Social media and the internet can be a tool for unlawfulness. Ask Lynda Bellingham and Michael Pattemore, they will tell you the same thing, from a victim’s point of view.

Social media users must know that it does not matter if you feel you are being humorous, mischievous, sharp or witty: if you are not careful about what you post online your comments could be considered as serious online defamation, and you could find yourself facing substantive libel proceedings, just like Ms. Bercow did.