Last month the BBC, embroiled in its own huge sex scandal, aired a segment on its premier nightly news show Newsnight that sought to lift the lid off a notorious sex abuse scandal, and reveal links to the upper echelon's of British politics.
The show — one of the most respected in British journalism — aired a number of accusations that linked a senior Conservative politician to a pedophile ring that operated out of homes for children in the 1970s, and had not been uncovered despite an inquiry into the abuse in the 1990s.
While the BBC didn't name the politician — apparently out of legal concerns — it didn't take long for Twitter users to latch onto one name: Lord McAlpine, formerly the Treasurer of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. Almost immediately his name was trending on Twitter.
All hell broke loose in the days after the show was aired: UK Prime Minister David Cameron ordered an inquiry, and scores of reporters camped outside McAlpine's Tuscan villa. The problem, however, was that it appears McAlpine didn't do it.
Even the witness who initially identified McAlpine to the BBC has since said it wasn't him, and Newsnight was forced to awkwardly apologize for failing to follow standard journalistic practice. The top boss at the BBC, Director General George Entwistle, resigned the day after.
McAlpine has begun legal action already, settling with the BBC for $295,000 or so in a deal that seems to have been reached quickly to end controversy. ITV — which may have inadvertently revealed McAlpine's name when handing a written list of suspected pedophiles to Prime Minister Cameron in a now notorious incident — is expected to face an even larger settlement fee.
But perhaps the most incredible aspect of the legal case now is McAlpine's plan to sue "at least" 10,000 people. with 1,000 tweets and 9,000 retweets identified so far. Here's what McAlpine's lawyer, Andrew Reid, had to say on the case:
“We have been watching people who have been taking down what they put on Twitter.
“We already have all the information. We have found a couple of firms of experts who have produced pretweets, post-tweets, the effect of the tweets and the retweets. What starts at one ends up as 100,000 in some cases.
“Twitter is not just a closed coffee shop among friends. It goes out to hundreds of thousands of people and you must take responsibility for it. It is not a place where you can gossip and say things with impunity, and we are about to demonstrate that.”
The list reportedly includes TV stars, journalists and even the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons. Some are now wondering whether publications that republished tweets on automatic feeds could be sued too. The Independent reports that individuals would be asked to pay a nominal sum to a children's charity, with celebrity tweeters treated differently.
It's an audacious action, and the Mirror notes such a case would involve the largest amount of defendants ever in British legal history. However, the UK legal system has appeared very willing to prosecute people based on their social media use in the past, with a number of people jailed in the wake of last summer's riots due to their posts on Facebook and Twitter.
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