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Sally Bercow at the High Court

Was I alone not surprised by yesterday’s verdict at the high court? No. Britain’s libel laws are notoriously wide and all-encompassing. You could be forgiven for thinking that elasticity is not entirely accidental, seeing as our courts are places where tremendous sums can be won or lost. Then there’s the small matter of libel law firms making a killing from the wealthy people who engage their services too. But of course, it wouldn’t be the done thing to suggest that there may be a link between the two *innocent face*.

Anyway, there’s a couple of quick points I want to make about this.

First, libel in general. Undoubtedly libel laws as they currently stand do have a chilling effect on free speech. The Defamation Bill is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough. But at the same time, and strangely for a socialist, I do not reject the redress available through libel action completely. Gross defamation of character in my opinion should be actionable. Slinging around vile slurs is not acceptable, and penalties enforceable through civil action ensures the right to free speech is balanced by taking responsibility for what one has to say.

Second, and despite that qualification, something about Lord McAlpine’s action against Sally Bercow does not sit right with me. As a Twitter celebrity, posting that tweet at the height of last Autumn’s paedophile panic was a stupid thing to do. Whatever one thinks of the law, it wouldn’t take 30 seconds for someone as internet-savvy as Sally to find out that suggestion by implication is as defamatory as explicitly libelling someone. And I have no doubt that Lord McAlpine was grossly offended and fearful for his reputation.

But I cannot help thinking that had it been someone other than Sally Bercow, the woman who in many conservatives’ eyes has denigrated the quiet dignity of being the Speaker’s helpmeet, then this libel action would not have happened.

This article first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist

One Comment

  1. Chris says:

    She hasn’t harmed his reputation. Everyone knows he didn’t do anything, so why should she pay a penny?

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