Libel by tweet

For all our cultural kinship, Britain and the United States approach expressive freedom in ways that are often sharply different.

The Brits have no constitutional free-speech guarantee comparable to the First Amendment. Their government muzzles the press even without court approval.  Official oversight of news media isn’t unthinkable, as it is here, and right now, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, an independent commission last week recommended legislation to subject the press to outside regulation.

Yet the British media are nobody’s lapdogs, and reporters can be brazen in confronting authority and courting official disdain. I recall a recent morning when the anchor for that most establishment of media, BBC radio, interviewing the UK foreign minister about an uprising abroad, said something very much like: “Look here, when are you going to stop sitting on your hands while this man massacres his own people?”—a rude, impertinent and utterly perfect question that would be unimaginable in the often fawning world of high-level, access-driven, U.S. journalism.

Still, it’s fair to say the British are more inclined than we to treat their media as useful and frisky but often foolish and fallible, and deserving, like any powerful institution, careful watching. Hence the rise of a judicial system that’s reputedly the best anywhere if you want to sue the media, with courts in England and Wales acclaimed as the world’s friendliest to victims of defamation.

So to the subject of libel via Twitter, and the current flap in London involving Alistair McAlpine, an ex-Conservative Party official who was linked falsely to child sex abuse in a scandalously bad BBC television report last month. The screwup already cost the BBC’s director general his job, and prompted hasty payouts from both the BBC and its rival ITV News.   

Now the BBC report did not in fact identify Lord McAlpine by name. What it did was provide clues, and a number of civilians on the Internet messaging network Twitter pursued them and drew the correct—which is to say, incorrect—conclusion about his identity, and before you knew it the hapless lord was being widely tweeted as a sexual miscreant.

McAlpine, in short, was slimed via Twitter. Now, he is going after his tormentors. He has identified 1,000 who identified him in tweets, and another Continue reading “Libel by tweet”

The struggle over values in the online news world

Week of December 21, 2009 The toughest challenges facing the news business may have more to do with values than finances. There’s reason for optimism about its economic future. The appetite for fact-based reporting and topical commentary is keener than ever, and the number of people with the skill and desire to feed it is […]