Lord McAlpine case underlines libel dangers for journalists of jigsaw identification in online age


Lord McAlpine’s claim that he has been identified by ‘inference’ as the senior Tory party figure involved in sexually abusing children is unusual but not unique.

His statement issued today says that a substantial number of people may have "reasonably inferred" that media reports referred to him, when put alongside posts including his name on the internet. Libel law says you don't have to be named to be identified.

Chelsea and England defender Ashley Cole was the first person to claim ‘jigsaw identification’ in a libel case.

In 2006, the News of the World ran a story headlined "Gay as you Go". It alleged that two Premiership footballers, one capped several times for England, and a music industry figure, were caught on camera involved in a "homosexual orgy".

A week later, the paper published a heavily obscured photo of two of the men allegedly involved, with the caption "Music Figure A and Player A.”

Bloggers and websites later tracked down what they believed to be the original, unobscured image, which showed Cole with a dance music DJ.

Cole sued the NoW (as first exclusively revealed by Press Gazette in March 2006) and won the landmark legal argument that they had identified him, when their article was read alongside material on the web. If was sufficient for Cole to say ‘Everyone thinks it’s me’.

This case – and Lord McAlpine’s situation – illustrate the dangers the internet poses in libel cases. Newspapers and broadcasters can get it right – but still fall foul of the law if internet sites complete a person’s identification.

Lord McApline said in today’s statement: "My name and the allegations are for all practical purposes linked and in the public domain". It remains to be seen if he sues anyone, using the ‘jigsaw identification’ ruling Ashley Cole case as a precedent,.

It’s just as well his Lordship didn’t make his statement at a press conference. Then qualified privilege would have applied – and journalists and bloggers could have named him in connection with child abuse without any risk of being sued.

Cleland Thom is a consultant and trainer in media law


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