Lord McAlpine of West Green v Sally Bercow

In McAlpine v Bercow [2013] EWHC 981 (QB) a hearing in the High Court in London was held to determine the meaning of a Tweet published by Sally Bercow the Defendant.  The meaning was to be tried as a preliminary issue. 

The Tweet read:

“Why is Lord McAlpine trending *Innocent face*”

The Claimant’s case, was that the natural and ordinary meaning and/or innuendo of the tweet meant that he was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care.

The Defendant denies that the tweet was defamatory of the Claimant.  She argued that the question she asked was simply a question.  She accepts that she asked the question why is the Claimant trending but that it was entirely neutral.  She argued that her question did not suggest any reason why Lord McAlpine was trending,it was neutral. 

The Judge stated that Sally Bercow’s followers were largely made up of people who shared her interest in politics and current affairs. They probably knew by the time of the tweet those elements in the “News Night” report.  The Judge thought that some of her followers had prior knowledge of the Claimant as a leading conservative politician and some followers probably did remember him in that capacity with others probably having sufficient interest in politics to have read about him. He thought that 55,000 was a substantial number of people, although he didn’t find that they had all read the tweet.

It was the Judge’s view that it wasn’t necessary for readers of the tweet to have any prior knowledge of Lord McAlpine as a leading politician. The tweet identified him by his title and it was common knowledge that Peers nowadays are generally people who have held prominent positions in public life. The tweet asked why the Claimant was trending in circumstances where:-

  • He was not otherwise in the public eye on 4 November 2012 and
  • There was much speculation as to the identity of an unnamed politician who had been prominent 20 years ago.

It was therefore his judgement that the reasonable reader would understand the words “Innocent face” as being insincere and ironic.  He found that there was no sensible reason for including those words in the tweet if they were taken as meaning that the Defendant simply wanted to know the answer to a factual question. 

He decided that her tweet “provided that last piece in the jigsaw” to wrongly link Lord McAlpine with the allegation of child sex abuse.  It is an allegation of guilt.  I see no room on these facts for any less serious meaning.”

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