Up to now the world of Twitter has been a sort of Wild West where Tweeters come crashing through the swing doors of the saloon and shoot off a couple of thoughts from the hip.
These invariably are views about a public person and quite without regard to the laws of libel. Hitherto the world of Twitter seems to have been a renegade state quite unregulated – a free-for-all for anyone with a view however vile or ill-informed.
That is all about to change as the 70-year-old Lord McAlpine sets his legal team to track down the people who perpetrated or spread the innuendo that he was implicated in a paedophile ring. There are reports this could amount to 10,000 people who chose to compose a Tweet or to re-Tweet a message.
Roughly speaking libel is lowering the reputation of someone in the eyes of right thinking people. If a Tweet (or published article) exposes that individual to ridicule or contempt and causes that person to be shunned or avoided, the legal boys will be out with the writs.
While the dawn of ‘citizen’ journalists has long since broken they should be warned that they have to follow the rules of their professional counterparts. Ignorance is no defence in law even if you didn’t read Essential Law for Journalists, as I did while at college.
One well known journalist of my acquaintance indicated he had been showered with distasteful messages about Lord McAlpine. Those indiscriminate Tweeters should now been quaking in their cowboy boots.
As Boris Johnson recently wrote: “To call someone a paedophile is to consign them to the lowest circle of hell”. While not every Twitter message was that low the sniggering and nudging was distasteful as not a scintilla of evidence had been offered up in the case of Lord McAlpine.
Not every libelled person is rich or even famous and probably without the funds to prosecute their case. More solicitors are offering conditional fee agreements (no win no fee) which mean those who believe they have been libelled have a chance to fight back.
So where will this all lead? It is probably the beginning of the end of Twitter being a lawless frontier and, while we all appreciate free speech, in the future those trigger happy Tweeters might just have to reign in their thoughts to be within the law.