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Don't Blame Libel Laws for Twitter's Mistakes

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The Libel laws in this country are in dire need of reform. Mine is hardly an original view - anybody who has ever tried to have a serious work broadcast or printed in this country will have come across the problems that have hamstrung journalists for years. It's not just that there's a chilling effect, the law forces writers and broadcasters into a deep freeze, with a few eighteen-stone bouncers sitting on top in case they ever wanted to get out.

Until there is a defence of honest opinion along the lines proposed in Lord Lester's libel reform bill, journalists will continue to be held back from telling the public about important stories that they honestly and reasonably believe are true, based on the underlying facts. Those who speak out in public know that they are literally putting their home under threat every time they open their mouth or pick up a pen. With the costs of a libel action often topping £1 million, and much of that being unrecoverable even if you win, it's no surprise that individual journalists, small publishing houses (and some bigger ones) and the like err on the side of caution.

But, with that off my chest, let me tell you about a situation where no amount of reform should make any difference. Over the past week, we've seen an extraordinary barrage of conjecture on Twitter about the identity of the supposed senior Tory paedophile. According to today's papers, it may well be the case that there was, in fact, no senior Tory paedophile at all. But, either way, a number of innocent men have had their names slurred day by day thanks to Twitter users (and the site's rather over-zealous algorithms).

A number of people may have had a good hunch as to who the figure at the centre of the storm was. Some may even have known his identity. However, what is now abundantly clear is that nobody who posted his identity online can have known the truth of the matter. Nobody can have done the necessary digging and fact-checking to ascertain whether he was guilty of the crime with which he was charged by the internet. If they had, they would have found out what proper, trained conscientious journalists at the Guardian did: that the story was full of holes.

This is precisely the type of allegation that should never make it into print, regardless of any reform to libel law. If you have serious doubts about the accuracy of a story - or worse, don't even care if it's true or not - then you are never justified in publishing.

This episode exposes the problem with Twitter: it gives a little bit of information and a public platform to people who don't have any thought for the subtleties of the situation, or, in most cases, any training in dealing with making serious allegations public. It's all too easy to pretend you're on the side of the righteous when you're naming names, but if you have no idea whether you're in fact spreading a grave libel rather than exposing the truth, you are doing nobody a public service.

One solution might be for those who were wronged to take action against the Twitter users who named them (and yes, that includes people who said things like, "Newsnight is on tonight. On a separate note, I hope X's lawyers are available" - that's still libellous). Each and every one of them could be sued. But, of course, the trouble is that doing so would take something posted on social media, and amplify its effect tenfold. Then, people would start seeing the fire to go with the smoke, and the reputation of the politicians involved would be sullied all the more.

Regulation is not the way to go, but education is. Everyone - journalists included - should be wary of tweeting before thinking. What's posted on Twitter can have a real and damaging impact. Although libel law must change, it should never, and will never, allow people to throw wild allegations around. Hopefully Twitter users will remember - as Peter Parker might tell them - they have been given great power, but that brings great responsibility, too.