In the Media

Why careless Tweeting could cost a fortune

PUBLISHED November 18, 2012

An allegation of paedophilia is one of the most serious slurs damaging to reputation and accordingly, it commands libel damages at the very top of the scale. Linked to personal injury awards, libel damages are capped at around £240,000 and the BBC's swift settlement in the sum of £185,000 for a rapidly retracted libel evidences the seriousness of the false allegation.

It is not just the BBC - and ITV - who are in the frame with everyone who is involved in the journey of the libel, from the original source to the ultimate recipient, liable for its publication. With 1,000 individual twitter accounts already identified, damages are certainly heading far north of the one settlement already made. A few ill-chosen characters on Twitter are likely translating into half a million pounds or more for Lord McAlpine.

Each person who takes place in the legal game of libel pass the parcel can be liable for any other publications that are the natural and foreseeable consequence of their publication. And that includes simply repeating the words of others. It's not a difficult argument to make that anyone who Tweets not only expects their 147 characters to be read by their followers, but also accepts that what they say might be retweeted, in other words republished, to many more people the world over. If publishing to hundreds or thousands of followers, its arguable that one tweeter could be liable for as substantial damages as a mainstream publisher or broadcaster. That any impecunious tweeter might be in the frame to pay out - even if only repeating the words of someone else - is evidence if ever we needed it, that free speech certainly isn't free. Twitter might seem like a bit of fun, but where it is the means by which a falsely accused has his or her reputation trashed instantaneously around the world, it becomes less of a laughing matter.

Our existing libel laws, appropriate for traditional print media operated by experienced editors and reporters, are now having to grapple with the modern world where anyone with access to a computer but little understanding of the law can become a publisher.

This affair will not change the law, but it will certainly highlight that Twitter and Tweeters cannot operate outside the law. And that a hundred or so ill advised characters could land the tweeter in the frame for sky-high damages.

* Amber Melville-Brown is a media specialist and partner at Withers law firm.