Is Newsnight guilty of libel?

Wrongfully-accused Lord McAlpine could have a case against the BBC, reports Anna Sheinman

Conservative peer Lord McAlpine has indicated that he may sue the BBC as well as many dozens of Twitter users for libel, claiming he's been wrongly identified by "inference" as having sexually abused children.

In a statement Lord McAlpine said he maintains the right to sue over a BBC Newsnight report implicating him in incidents of child abuse in the 1970s. He has described the programme's accusations as "wholly false and seriously defamatory." He said: "I have decided that in order to mitigate, if only to some small extent, the damage to my reputation I must publicly tackle these slurs and set the record straight." He has reportedly instructed former solicitor general Sir Edward Garnier QC to act for him in any potential claims.

The potentially libellous controversy began when a BBC Newsnight programme about sexual abuse at children's care homes in North Wales was aired. One victim, Steve Messham, described one of his abusers as "a leading Tory politician of the Thatcher era".

In libel law, a person can be defamed without being named. All that is needed are comments that reasonably lead people to conclude that a particular person is being referred to. Though no comments were made on Newsnight that directly, previous tweets published may referred to Lord McAlpine as the abuser, have led viewers to reach this conclusion.

Pieces of the jigsaw

These tweets are clearly defamatory. However, the BBC could also be found guilty of libel because of what is known as "jigsaw identification". If he chose to sue, Lord McAlpine could argue that the BBC had identified him because, while the programme by itself did not give enough facts to identify him, the posts on Twitter completed the process.

This argument was first used in 2006 when footballer Ashley Cole sued the News of the World. The now-defunct tabloid had printed an article about two premiership footballers and a music industry figure taking part in a gay orgy, alongside an obscured picture of the group. Bloggers and websites later found what appeared to be the unobscured image, showing Cole with a dance music DJ. The News of the World was found guilty, as the article identified Cole when read as alongside other online material.

Lord McAlpine said: "My name and the allegations are for all practical purposes linked and in the public domain." The International Forum for Responsible Media said that in such a case "...it is clear that the claimant does not have to be mentioned by name. The fact that many or even most viewers of the programme would not have identified Lord McAlpine would only be relevant to damages and would not provide a defence."

The BBC has issued a public apology, as has Steve Messham. George Entwistle, the Director General of the BBC, resigned over what has been termed by one Conservative MP a "shoddy piece of journalism". It remains to be seen whether, once Lord McAlpine has picked up the pieces of his reputation, he will press charges.

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