A TWEET by Sally Bercow, the wife of the Commons Speaker, about Lord McAlpine, following a BBC Newsnight programme on child sex abuse, was highly defamatory, a judge has ruled.
She had denied libel and after the judgment said: “To say I’m surprised and disappointed by this is an understatement.”
Mrs Bercow has agreed to pay an undisclosed sum and apologised to Lord McAlpine.
Newsnight had wrongly implicated an unnamed Tory peer in a sex abuse scandal at Bryn Estyn children’s home in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.
Rumours spread on social media linking Lord McAlpine, who was entirely innocent, to the programme.
Mrs Bercow wrote on Twitter: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*”
Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled that the tweet meant the former party treasurer was a “paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care”.
After the ruling, Mrs Bercow said: “I have accepted an earlier offer his lawyers made to settle the matter.”
The amount of damages was not disclosed.
Her posting appeared two days after the Newsnight report last November.
Lord McAlpine, who has already received six-figure payouts from the BBC and ITV, said it pointed “the finger of blame” during a media frenzy.
Mrs Bercow said later: “In November 2012, I tweeted the question ‘Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*’. I did not tweet this with malice, and I did not intend to libel Lord McAlpine. I was being conversational and mischievous, as was so often my style on Twitter.
“I very much regret my tweet, and I promptly apologised publicly and privately to Lord McAlpine for the distress I caused him. I also made two offers of compensation.
“Today, the High Court found that my tweet constituted a serious libel, both in its natural meaning and as an innuendo. To say I’m surprised and disappointed by this is an understatement.
“However, I will accept the ruling as the end of the matter. I remain sorry for the distress I have caused Lord McAlpine and I repeat my apologies.”
Mrs Bercow added: “Today’s ruling should be seen as a warning to all social media users. Things can be held to be seriously defamatory, even when you do not intend them to be defamatory and do not make any express accusation.
“On this, I have learned my own lesson the hard way.”
Speaking for Lord McAlpine, Andrew Reid, of RMPI Solicitors, said he was pleased with the judge’s finding.
“The apologies previously received from Mrs Bercow did not concede that her tweet was defamatory. Clearly, she must now accept this fact.
“The failure of Mrs Bercow to admit that her tweet was defamatory caused considerable unnecessary pain and suffering to Lord McAlpine and his family over the past six months.”
Mr Reid said he was glad that, after the ruling, she had “finally seen sense” and accepted the offer of settlement Lord McAlpine had made in January.
The judge said Mrs Bercow’s followers on Twitter – she had 56,000 – were probably largely made up of people who shared her interest in politics and current affairs and knew, by the time of her post, elements of the story told on Newsnight.
It was not necessary for them to have any prior knowledge of Lord McAlpine as a leading politician of the Thatcher years to link the tweet naming him with the Newsnight allegations.
“In my judgment, the reasonable reader would understand the words ‘innocent face’ as being insincere and ironical,” Mr Justice Tugendhat said.
“There is no sensible reason for including those words in the tweet if they are to be taken as meaning that the defendant simply wants to know the answer to a factual question.”
The reader would reasonably infer that Mrs Bercow had provided “the last piece in the jigsaw”, he said.