Sally Bercow tweet trial: ‘Wide readership’ claims

Sally Bercow. Picture: PA
Sally Bercow. Picture: PA
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SPEAKER’S wife Sally Bercow who is fighting an action brought by Tory peer Lord McAlpine over an allegedly libellous tweet was not “some kitchen table blogger”, the High Court heard today.

• Sally Bercow, wife of House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, is fighting legal action against Lord McAlpine following an allegedly libelouusn tweet

• Tweet allegedly indicates that Lord McAlpine was involved in sexual abuse of boys living in care

The former Conservative party treasurer is seeking damages over a posting on Twitter which he says meant that he was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care.

Ms Bercow has always denied that her November 4 tweet, “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*”, was defamatory.

Lord McAlpine’s QC, Sir Edward Garnier, told Mr Justice Tugendhat that Ms Bercow had 60,000 followers so her readership was bigger than some local newspapers.

“We are not talking about some kitchen table blogger addressing perhaps herself and one other person.

“’We are talking about a pretty widespread readership.”

Neither Lord McAlpine nor Ms Bercow were in court for the peer’s contested application for the trial to be split in two, with the first hearing deciding the meaning of the tweet and, if that went in his favour, a second hearing on the appropriate level of damages.

Sir Edward said that the sooner the meaning was fixed upon the better.

“There will be a huge saving of time and costs and it will allow the parties to get this matter behind them and get on with the rest of their lives however they choose to lead them.”

Ms Bercow’s tweet followed a Newsnight report that wrongly implicated Lord McAlpine in child sex abuse allegations.

In February, the peer, who has already received six-figure payouts from the BBC and ITV, announced he was dropping defamation claims against Twitter users with fewer than 500 followers and instead asked for a charitable donation to BBC Children In Need.

Ms Bercow’s counsel, William McCormick QC, said she had promptly tweeted her apologies, provided letters apologising for the distress caused and making clear that the underlying allegations were untrue, and made an offer to settle the case which had not been withdrawn.

The last thing the litigation needed was a preliminary issue which would cause delay - what was required was a swift timetable to a single final hearing at the end of July.

Sir Edward told the court that, in the context of the Newsnight broadcast and given the media storm and frenzy going on at that time, it was Lord McAlpine’s case that the tweet identified him as the subject of the allegations.

One would have to have been “a moron in a hurry” or an “anchorite in a sealed cave” not to have known the circumstances surrounding the tweet.

Granting the application, the judge directed that there should be a preliminary hearing on what was the actual meaning of the words complained of - both a natural and ordinary meaning and an innuendo meaning.

He said he would give his reasons at a later date.