Did you hear about the footballer who had an affair with that glamour model last year? Yes? Do you know his name? You shouldn’t, because said footballer took out a super-injunction banning any publication from identifying him. Yet almost everybody knew that Ryan Giggs was the alleged culprit, thanks mainly to thousands of users on social networking sites such as Twitter. Although naming him defied the gagging order, their status as individuals unconnected to newspapers or broadcasters meant there was little the footballer could do about it.
However, this may well change, if a new defamation bill currently under review in the House of Lords becomes law. The bill contains a clause which would allow authors of any online material, including controversial tweets, to be held to account in exactly the same way as any other publisher. You may think – and I would agree with you – that any celebrity stupid enough to have an affair while under the scrutiny of the media forfeits their ‘right to privacy’ and may even deserve a Twitter exposé. But what about people who are accused of serious crimes through Twitter, despite a substantial lack of proof?
This is what happened last month to the Tory MP Lord McAlpine, who was wrongfully indicated as a child molester by BBC’s Newsnight. The BBC, who has agreed to pay £3,250 of damages for their botched report, did not actually name the peer, but at least 10,000 Twitter users did. Now, this “trial by Twitter” may result in the tweeters finding themselves in the courts, as Lord McAlpine is threatening to sue for libel. Users with fewer than 500 followers will get off with a “sensible and modest” donation to charity. But tweeters with more influence may soon find themselves the subjects of a criminal investigation.
Is this right? Should individuals on social network sites be responsible for what they say in exactly the same way major broadcasters are? In a nutshell: yes. The wonder of the internet is that it gives power to the people. For perhaps the first time in living history you do not have to be powerful or famous to have your opinions heard around the globe. But this potential for influence comes at a price. A huge amount of harm can be caused by accusing someone of a crime they did not commit -especially a crime of this seriousness.
For a politician like Lord McAlpine, the stigma alone could destroy his career, regardless of actual guilt. Libel laws and super-injunctions exist to protect innocent people from becoming victims of false accusations. Removing this protection can lead to the accused becoming victims of mob mentality and hate campaigns. Consequently, it is absolutely right that anyone who chooses to publicly broadcast information that breaks libel laws should be held responsible for the content and consequences of their statements.
Critics of the new bill (and super-injunctions generally) say that it will infringe people’s freedom of speech. They also argue that by causing Twitter uses to self-censor themselves, the bill strips away the freedom and dynamism that makes such sites so popular. While I don’t disagree with these statements, I would argue that it is more important to protect people from unfounded accusations. Besides, the British press has been subject to libel laws for centuries, yet it still among the most powerful and critical in the world.
There is a strong feeling among the British that perpetrators of heinous crimes – particularly crimes involving children – should be named and shamed and not protected by the law. While it is undoubtedly be true that the guilty should be punished, it is equally important that the innocent should not be persecuted, and we are all innocent until we are proven guilty. Moreover, our guilt is a matter for the courts to decide, not Twitter users. Having passed its second reading in the House of Lords, the defamation bill looks likely to become law. In the mean time, be careful what you tweet.