Much of the mainstream press is awash with very public horror at the thought that the government might legislate regulation on the national press if that’s what Lord Leveson recommends.
Last week, Lord McAlpine’s lawyers met with the Metropolitan Police to begin what Scotland Yard calls a “scoping exercise” to discover if the police can treat the tweeting and retweeting of the allegations that McAlpine abused children as a criminal offence. I saw no mainstream press expressing horror that this might lead to legal curbs on a free press. Scotland Yard said:
“We have not received an allegation of crime at this time, however, we can confirm we will be meeting with interested parties to start the process of scoping whether any offence has taken place. It is far too early to say whether any criminal investigation will follow.”
Lawyers for McAlpine said they had identified up to 10,000 allegedly defamatory tweets about the former Tory party treasurer.
They announced plans to sue Twitter users and broadcasters, including the BBC and ITV, for libel following the inaccurate Newsnight report into child sex abuse on 2 November.
You might ask – as Tom Pride does – why a man who opts to live in Italy rather than pay his taxes in the UK, is getting this kind of special treatment from the Metropolitan Police. Let him call upon the Italian police to investigate Twitter, since he chooses to live there.
Tomorrow, Lord Leveson will publish his recommendations from the Leveson enquiry.
David Allan Green points out the historical meaning of freedom of the press:
So when the term was first deployed it was not a label for the privileges of any big “P” Press consisting of a professional journalistic class working on a finite number of publications, for such a class of people did not then exist. It would appear to have had a more straightforward meaning: it described the general right of every person to have access to and make use of (literally) a press so as to publish to the world at large, without the intervention of licensors or censors.
In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.
The modern free press includes Facebook, and Twitter, and WordPress, and Youtube.
Jimmy Savile abused children and the children – when adults – complained to the police, and no action was taken as long as Savile was alive. He was a rich man: he could afford the best libel lawyers. Sir Cyril Smith abused boys, and on three occasions he was reported to the police, and the Crown Prosecution Service did nothing, because (I would guess) the only evidence was from the victims themselves: a case against a wealthy and important man would come to nothing if the only evidence was testimony from men, neither wealthy nor important, trying to talk about how Smith had used them.
Racists and others have a problem with the Children’s Commissioner’s report:
The report revealed that 16,500 children were at high risk of sexual exploitation and 2,409 had been sexually exploited in a 14-month period. It met with immediate criticism following its publication on Tuesday – with unnamed sources questioning the reliability of the numbers, while others accused it of failing to address a particular problem of the targeting of white girls by networks of British Pakistani men:
The Deputy Children’s Commissioner insisted the “model” of Asian men abusing white teenage girls was only one among a wide range of unacceptable behaviour.
She added: “When people focus on that one model they are unfortunately not identifying all victims because they think that all victims are white girls.” The Deputy Children’s Commissioner, supported by a panel of experts, is due to make her final recommendations in the autumn of 2013.
The deputy children’s commissioner Sue Berelowitz, who is leading the two-year inquiry, told the Guardian that the office of the children’s commissioner stood 100% behind the report, which unnamed government sources labelled “hysterical” and “half-baked”. Harrowing detail had been left out of the report, while figures were based on data recorded by statutory agencies, she said. “This is definitely a calm and moderate report,” she said, adding that the comments were “unhelpful”.
I have 1300+ followers on Twitter, so if I say something libellous about Lord McAlpine, apparently I need to pay his lawyers £3500 and donate £10,000 to Children in Need:
As a social media influencer the damage done to Lord McAlpine’s reputation by your promulgation of unsubstantiated accusations against him was significant. Whilst neither we, nor Lord McAlpine seek overtly punitive damages, it is our feeling that any recompense should recognise the enormous damage done to his reputation by those whose views are disseminated widely and greeted with credulity.
To this end, as a full and final settlement of this matter Lord McAlpine requests that you make a donation to his chosen charity (Children in Need) of £10,000 and pay administrative costs of £3500.
Details on how to make this payment are enclosed with this letter. This settlement offer remains valid for 14 days from the date of this correspondence, after which time legal proceedings will be instigated.
Simon Kelner noted last week that Lord McAlpine doesn’t need to pursue this huge libel case to clear his name: he’s done that comprehensively already.
What’s more, the fact that he was “outed” by a rumour-mongering Twitter mob only heightens the sense of outrage, particularly among those who neither use nor understand the social network.
In some circles, the good Lord McAlpine, pictured, with his threat to start legal proceedings against anyone who tweeted or re-tweeted his name, is regarded as something of a freedom fighter, the man who is taking on the cyber-gossips and has refused to be cowed by the scale of the job (lawyers believe that the number of defendants in this case could number 10,000).
Or as someone who is quelling the unruly plebians who presume to take the principle of a free press seriously.
Lord McAlpine’s lawyers make no distinction between people commenting on Twitter before or after the Newsnight report. This is crucial. Because from that point on, we are not talking about speculation. We are not talking about a celebrity or a journalist getting the wrong end of the stick and naming the wrong person.
We are talking about people accurately putting together the easy puzzle that Newsnight aired. To my mind, this relegates Lord McAlpine’s extraordinary attack on tens of thousands of ordinary social media users to the realm of ludicrous. Because what it says, very directly, is that one cannot comment on the news without independently verified sources of one’s own.
If I, as the man on the Clapham omnibus, cannot reasonably assume that the information passed to me by one of the most respected news programmes of one of the most respected news outlets is accurate, I am effectively gagged from commenting on it. Or anything reported anywhere.
You might argue that caring for His Preciousness Lord McAlpine’s hurty feelings is much less important than protecting children from abuse:
It is clear from recent high profile cases, in Rochdale or involving Jimmy Savile, that collectively we are not good enough at responding to children, particularly older teenagers, who are often labelled as promiscuous or troublesome rather than vulnerable young people. This produces a culture in which some children are blamed for their own abuse. As the report shows clearly, children cannot consent to their own exploitation.
But nobody could read this report without wanting to know how to prevent such appalling abuse from happening in the first place. That is why the role of the public is so crucially important. The NSPCC, which deals with calls to its adult helpline, makes the point that often the general public does not understand what constitutes abuse. That is why the Government should build on the report with a public awareness campaign to help parents, friends, and young people themselves, to identify sexual exploitation and know how and where to report it.
The inquiry team included academics and “senior safeguarding professionals” from the police, from the NHS, and from the third sector, and collected evidence from across the UK, concluding:
too often police, local authorities and other safeguarding agencies have failed to spot or act on the warning signs of sexual exploitation, despite what it says is 20 years of evidence that large numbers of children are being sexually exploited in the UK. “Too many child victims are not getting the protection and support they need,” writes Berelowitz in the foreword to the report.
It criticises safeguarding professionals who labelled victims as “promiscuous” or “asking for it”. This “worrying perspective” suggested officials too often assumed that sexually exploited children, many of whom exhibited disruptive or aggressive behaviour, were “complicit in, and responsible for, their own abuse”.
The first criminal investigation into Sir Cyril Smith was in 1970, and then
uncovered eight youths who alleged that Smith attacked them when they were teenagers, between 1961 and 1966. The descriptions of the attacks were similar and according to the CPS “were allegedly conducted on the pretexts of either a medical examination or punishment for misbehaviour”.
The Crown Prosecution Service admitted that one factor that made the Director of Public Prosecutions decide not to proceed with the case against Cyril Smith then was the DPP’s assessment that
“the characters of some of these young men would be likely to render their evidence suspect”.
The Daily Mail, which recently ran a hatchet job attacking Steven Messham, whose character in their view “rendered his evidence suspect” just as it would have done against Cyril Smith in 1970, is now running a headline “Chilling claims that Cyril Smith child abuse scandal was concealed to avoid crisis at Westminster” – because Cyril Smith is safely dead: The Daily Mail would never have had the courage of a small magazine called Rochdale Alternative Press, which did run the story about Cyril Smith in 1979.
But libel law, in the UK, is heavily skewed towards the rich.
Way back in 1979, Smith managed to close down any discussion of the allegations by threatening to sue Twitter users and bloggers if any of them tried to reveal or discuss the subject of child abuse by rich and powerful people in children’s homes.
Obviously there were no tweeters or bloggers in the 1970s, but there were the equivalent – small independent magazines published by volunteers who sold them on independent distribution networks around pubs, clubs etc.
The people who wrote for these independent magazines were the bloggers of their day and the people who bought them and discussed the articles with their friends in the local pubs were the tweeters of their day.
Cyril Smith, a very powerful and wealthy man at the time, quickly announced he was taking out an injunction against Rochdale Alternative Press and threatened to sue them – or anyone else who dared to repeat the allegations – for libel.
Although Smith didn’t actually take anyone to court, everyone was so terrified of being sued, there was a total gag on any media – a gag which successfully closed down all discussion about the scandal for nearly four decades.
The Daily Mail didn’t expose Jimmy Savile. Nor Cyril Smith.
But they write in full-on panic conspiracy theory mode:
That something is the Leveson Inquiry into Britain’s beleaguered newspaper industry. Its conclusions, which are to be published imminently, could have huge implications for a press that has been free of government control for 300 years, and for freedom of speech itself.
This is the kind of story the Daily Mail wants to be free to run, the “freedom of speech” it defends so passionately. I’d like you to go read it in full – a classic tabloid tale of making up crap about a woman whom the Mail assumed to be defenceless and about whom they could therefore say what they liked – but here’s what happened when she sued them for libel after they’d brushed her off with “matter’s closed”:
I certainly didn’t consider the matter closed. My name, image and brief details of my life had been used to fabricate a story which bore no resemblance to me or my life, then presented as fact, said by me, in my own words. It was damaging to me, my children, my friends and had a significantly negative impact on my life.
I emailed the other three women who’d been interviewed for the article – I found their addresses on an email the journalist had sent about the photoshoot. They each confirmed that they’d been horrified by the article, that it bore no relationship to anything they’d said and that they too had complained to Associated Newspapers and been similarly stonewalled. Sadly, after consulting solicitors they decided not to pursue any legal action because of the prohibitive costs.
I made my own enquiries with a solicitor and he was very sympathetic, but told me that I’d need a five-figure sum to consider bringing a claim.
Not having a five-figure sum, but determined to bring the Daily Mail to account for their damaging article, I decided to pursue my own claim.
So I researched the laws of defamation on the internet, identified the areas appropriate to me and acted as a litigant in person in an action against Associated Newspapers.
In response to my original claim for defamation, the Daily Mail brought a claim against me citing that I had no prospect of success and proposing that my claim be thrown out. This meant that instead of Associated Newspapers responding to my grievances, I was forced to defend myself to them and prove that I had been wronged. They also applied for me to pay their costs.
That’s Daily Mail freedom of speech: free for them, but not for you.
Tax avoidance in UK skewed towards the rich. Lord McAlpine is very rich. Libel law in the UK is skewed towards the rich. It’s important to say that I do not – and I never did – say that McAlpine raped children. But he’s certainly treating himself as if he matters more than all the hurt children who never see justice done because their abusers are rich men who can afford to ensure that no one dares publish the truth.
There must be a public interest defence, and it must be clearly distinct from the spurious tabloidy claim that it counts as “public interest” if the public would be interested enough to buy their paper. At the same time, when papers like the Daily Mail attack the reputation of people too poor to afford a libel lawyer, there must be a means by which they can, when their allegations are shown to be untrue, be forced to publish a retraction and an apology as prominent as the original story.
Sally Bercow, Alan Davies and Guardian columnist George Monbiot have been formally told now that they face damages for being among the naughty “high profile Tweeters”….which McAlpine and Reid define as ‘people with more than 500 followers’. This too is a figure plucked from the air: why not 5,000? Or 50,000?
Bercow, who has 56,000 followers, tweeted: ‘Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*’. Frankly, any judge directing to convict on the basis of that would be asking for his head in a tumbril basket. If his Lordship is seriously suggesting that it should henceforth be deemed libellous to sarcastically suggest you don’t know why someone is trending, then we might as well all go home and have our lips sewn up. It is a straightforward attack on freedom of comment, falling within the guidelines referred to above: ‘Twitter users were simply commenting in real-time on what they were seeing, without any premeditated malicious intent’.
Anyone who supports Lord McAlpine in doing this and objects to regulation which would ensure that those not as rich as McAlpine can still see justice done, is not a defender of the freedom of the press: they’re just going where the money is.