Frankie Howerd was right: ‘Twitter ye not’.

The late and great comedian Frankie Howerd had a memorable line tagged to many of his routines. He would regularly complain to the audience that we were rowdy saying, ‘Titter ye not’. If the laughtermaker were around today and still treading the boards, he would surely change the tagline to ‘Twitter ye not’.

scales of justice
Out of scales: What are we really allowed to say?
The networking giant has lost, dare I suggest, hash-tag brownie points for allowing people to mention the wholly innocent Lord McAlpine in connection with child abuse claims. While Lord McAlpine is absolutely right in instructing his legal team to pursue damages, the proceeds of which he will donate to Children In Need, there is an element which is worrying. Certainly the BBC is responsible for a shabby, lazy and disastrous probe into child abuse in a children’s home in North Wales broadcast on Newsnight and according to The Lawyer magazine, a settlement has been reached. But is pursuing the few thousand people who tweeted and retweeted on the subject really necessary? The fact is that Twitter and Facebook are the 21st century equivalent of a chat in the pub over a quiet drink. But of course there aren’t enough greedy lawyers to hang around every snug waiting for someone to say that a certain footballer is a ‘lazy xxxx’ and then collect the money. Today, all a lawyer with a cash slot machine in his eyeballs needs to do is type a few words into a search engine and hey, thousands of mugs who have said something about a ‘celebrity’ are there for the taking.

So what is the answer? How does an ordinary Joe using Twitter know what is potentially libelous? Are we entitled to express our opinions when we believe issues need to be raised? Yes, it’s true, those people who jumped on the completely false McAlpine bandwagon were wrong. But again, is repeating what someone says a criminal offence? We surely don’t want to go down the route where millions of blogs (like this one) are subject to possible litigation, but on the other hand we don’t want people sending malicious lies and rumours viral. The best chat rooms and forums have moderators who make sure the boxers punch above the belt. But that idea is impossible to police throughout the Internet.

The bottom line of this is that the Internet has revolutionised our lives, mainly for good. We will never completely stop the spammers and scammers, nor will we ever stop online pub talk reaching audiences of millions. While completely understanding Lord McAlpine’s anger, there is really no need to go for the thousands of people potentially implicating in spreading the malicious rumour. The BBC should pay up for a disgraceful piece of journalism. The bloke from the snug deserves a slightly wider berth.