Just months after the late Conservative peer Lord McAlpine settled legal action against Twitter users for untrue suggestions he was a paedophile, people are now openly naming MPs and celebrities as suspected child abusers on the internet. Many of the online allegations are much more direct than the insinuation of Sally Bercow, who paid damages after tweeting “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*”.
Theresa May, the home secretary, has announced an inquiry into the handling of child abuse allegations by public institutions following the Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith scandals, as well as accusations of a high-profile paedophile ring in Westminister involving more than a dozen people. However, no politician has so far been arrested or charged with any related offence.
Hugh Tomlinson QC, a leading privacy lawyer, said: “The first point to make is that for many years there have been rumours about all kinds of individuals. Some of those will turn out to be false, and some to be true. Lord McAlpine is a very good example of the first and Jimmy Savile is a very good example of the second. But for people to report rumours in the way that some people apparently are doing online is extremely dangerous from a legal point of view.
“First of all it could prejudice any prosecutions. Secondly, it could expose them to defamation proceedings. If people are naming politicians as suspected paedophiles, it seems the McAlpine lessons have not been learned.”
Tomlinson said child abuse is “obviously an emotional subject where feelings run very high and where the consequences of a false allegation are extremely serious”.
“A false allegation of paedophilia is so serious it could lead to someone having a mental breakdown, becoming the subject of vigilante attacks or even committing suicide,” he said. “Victims should be going to the police and other people should not be making accusations simply on the basis of rumour.
Nigel Jones, of JMD Law, who brought the first Twitter libel case in 2011, also said any internet users posting allegations that have no foundation in fact are being “rather silly in light of the McAlpine case”.
“Defamation on Facebook, Twitter, whatever social media site contains exactly the same penalties as if it appeared in a newspaper,” he said. “The only difficulty we sometimes get is identifying the actual poster.”
He said comments may be libellous irrespective of a person’s number of followers, whether the claims are made to two or 20 million people.
It comes as the House of Lords communications committee prepares to hold a hearing about abuse on social media on Wednesday.
Lord Clement-Jones, managing partner of DLA Piper law firm and a member of the committee, said he might raise the issue in the session, where representatives of Twitter, Facebook, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service are due to appear.
“This must be the subject of discussion,” he said. “I had thought of trolling as victimising individuals but Twitter is not necessarily replying to an individual, you could be talking to people at large. It is absolutely relevant that individuals are doing this kind of thing. This issue of how far is it tinged with criminality, I think that will be the question we really do need to talk about. Are all these allegations that people are making tipping over into criminality?”
Downing Street has previously condemned the risk of “trial by Twitter” after ITV presenter Philip Schofield ambushed David Cameron on live television with a list of suspected paedophiles found on the internet. “There is a danger if we are not careful that this can turn into a sort of witch hunt, particularly about people who are gay, and I’m worried about the sort of thing you are doing right now, taking a list of names off the internet,” Cameron said at the time.
Sir Brian Leveson, who conducted a public inquiry into the media, warned in 2012 that new laws might be needed to stop mob rule and trial by Twitter online, warning that the internet had become a “global megaphone for gossip”.