Twitter users could face court over peer claims

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Police are to look into whether any criminal offence has been committed over the Lord McAlpine affair, it emerged yesterday.

The peer, who was wrongly named as a paedophile online following a botched Newsnight investigation into child abuse at a North Wales care home, has already reached a £185,000 
settlement with the BBC and his lawyers are in talks with ITV over a bigger payment.

The broadcaster sparked fury when presenter Phillip Schofield brandished a list of names of alleged abusers which he had found on the internet and handed it to the Prime Minister during a live interview.

Former Tory politician Lord McAlpine has also vowed to pursue Twitter users who wrongly named him, asking those who linked him to child abuse allegations to apologise formally and pay a “sensible and modest amount” which he plans to donate to BBC Children in Need.

Yesterday it emerged that Scotland Yard is to start looking into whether any criminal offence has taken place in connection with the saga. It is thought crimes could include malicious communication.

A spokesman for Scotland Yard said: “We have not received an allegation of crime at this time. However, we can confirm we will be meeting with interested parties to start the process of scoping whether any offence has taken place. It is far too early to say whether any criminal investigation will follow.”

Lord McAlpine’s solicitor, Andrew Reid, previously said action was being considered against a “very long list” of Twitter users.

Comedian Alan Davies and the Commons Speaker’s wife Sally Bercow are among the prominent figures who have already apologised for linking the peer to child abuse allegations on Twitter.

It has revealed that Lord McAlpine is donating compensation he receives from defamatory posts on Twitter to BBC Children in Need. A statement from his lawyers said: “The donation is intended for tweeters with fewer than 500 followers, but those with larger numbers of followers are still encouraged to identify themselves and offer their formal apologies at this stage.”

Twitter users, and those who might have posted information on social networking sites could face prosecution under the Communications Act 2003 or the Malicious Communications Act 1988.

Section 127 (2) of the Communications Act 2003 makes it an offence for someone to use a “public electronic communications network” to send a message he or she knows to be false, for the purpose of causing “annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another”.

The maximum penalty, on summary conviction, is six months in prison, and/or a fine up to £5,000.