Is there a better way to deal with witch hunts?

Legal action is not the best way of holding to account the kind of modern-day irrationalists who smeared Lord McAlpine.

That Lord McAlpine has been hurt by the malicious rumours spread about him on Twitter and television is perfectly understandable. After all, McAlpine, a former treasurer in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party, was widely and wrongly named as a child abuser. No innocent person should have to put up with such smears.

And yet, the response from McAlpine’s lawyers has been problematic. The legal pursuit of financial compensation from various individuals and institutions who damaged McAlpine’s reputation raises questions about taking the legal route to try to right moral wrongs.

‘If all goes well we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile’, tweeted Iain Overton, then managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), on 2 November. The Newsnight episode in question didn’t name any names, but it, together with Overton’s tweet, did start a feeding frenzy on Twitter and across the internet. Before long, McAlpine’s name was trending on Twitter, as people falsely accused him of being an abuser. The Twitterati threw fuel on the flames, with Sally Bercow, wife of the House of Commons speaker, tweeting ‘Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*’, and Guardian columnist George Monbiot tweeting ‘I looked up Lord #McAlpine on t’internet. It says the strangest things.’ Then, live on ITV’s This Morning, presenter Phillip Schofield ambushed UK prime minister David Cameron with a list of suspected paedophiles, inadvertently displaying McAlpine’s name to the camera.

Cameron said, ‘There is a danger if we are not careful that this can turn into a sort of witch-hunt’. In fact, the witch hunt had already begun by then, particularly on the internet. It was then revealed that the single source for the BIJ/Newsnight report realised that McAlpine wasn’t his abuser after all. Many of the witch-hunters started to apologise to McAlpine for smearing him. Monbiot offered an ‘abject apology’, claiming: ‘I helped to stoke an atmosphere of febrile innuendo around an innocent man, I allowed myself to be carried away by a sense of moral outrage.’ Monbiot was right to use the words ‘febrile’ and ‘outrage’ to describe the medieval-style rumour-mongering about allegedly evil men that he and others thoughtlessly signed up for.

Now, the witch hunters are having to make serious amends for their baseless claims. The BBC has agreed to pay McAlpine £185,000; ITV is paying him £125,000 over Schofield’s actions on This Morning. McAlpine’s lawyer Andrew Reid is reportedly approaching 20 of the highest-profile tweeters – those with 500 followers or more - who named McAlpine, including Monbiot and Bercow. ‘I think most importantly we get an apology and an undertaking not to repeat’, said Reid. ‘And once we’ve examined the extent of the damage they’ve done, we’ll agree suitable damages.’

It is unquestionable that McAlpine’s reputation was smeared - but is pursuing financial damages really the best way to correct wrong claims and terrible journalism? There must surely be another way that wrongs can be made right without recourse to legal action; there must be a better way society can hold morally responsible those who spread rumours or tell untruths. Indeed, in using financial pressure, rather than seeking moral condemnation of untruth-tellers, legal action can actually leave fundamental issues unresolved - it replaces a social drive towards holding people morally culpable for their mythmaking with a largely behind-the-scenes pressure on individuals to pay up for their wrongdoings. By appealing to judges in a courtroom apart from the public sphere, libel actions or legal threats implicitly exclude the public from taking the likes of Bercow, Monbiot and Newsnight to task for their moral failings, shoddy journalism and irrational witch-hunting.

The use of libel can encourage the further spread of speech-policing. The actions being taken by McAlpine’s lawyers could possibly chill certain forms of journalism, especially at the BBC, and also set a dangerous precedent on Twitter. It is possible that Twitter will become a more stultified place, where people think twice before saying anything shocking or even before retweeting someone else’s comments. And this exposes the problem with taking a legal response to false claims - there is a problem with thoughtlessness and witch-hunting on Twitter, but this kind of legal action doesn’t really do anything to address that problematic culture; instead it risks simply stymying speech in general, and the free flow of tweets, while only punishing individual witch-hunters financially through lawyers.

So, what would be a better model for sorting out instances in which people are clearly wronged, in which journalists and others partake in a completely unfounded witch-hunt of an innocent person? Perhaps we should look to what happened with the former Independent columnist Johann Hari. When Hari’s repeated plagiarism and Wikipedia sock-puppetry was exposed in 2011, speech rather than the law was used to hold him to account. Bloggers, tweeters and journalists uncovered Hari’s shoddy journalism and plagiaristic antics and critiqued them in public, in detail, for all to see. Hari was publicly ridiculed; he was made properly morally responsible for his projection of unfounded claims and ideas into the public arena. This led to him returning the 2008 Orwell Prize and his resignation from the Independent. That kind of comeuppance, done freely and openly and with no potential chilling effect on other people’s journalistic pursuits, is preferable, surely, to taking a more legalistic route in response to bad claims.

Lord McAlpine suffered harm, of that there is no doubt. But instead of legal action, would it not be better for his witch-hunters, whether they were on Twitter or at the BIJ and BBC, to be held up to open and frank public scrutiny and ridicule? That way, we could aim both to clear McAlpine’s name and also hold to account the modern-day irrationalists who harassed and harmed him, without the risk of strengthening the law’s hand over the written and spoken word.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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