A defamatory statement is one which is false and causes damage to a person’s reputation or otherwise does them harm.
Libel is the term given to defamation in a permanent form, such as in print. Since the Broadcasting Act 1990, this also includes statements that are broadcast on the radio or television, even though the words are in this case spoken rather than written. It is the tangibility of the statement that really matters – libel deals with statements that are recorded. Defamation in a transitory and non-permanent form (eg, defamatory statements which are spoken) is known as slander.
Defamation and chat rooms
Libel can also include comments made online, including comments in emails or on websites. Usually comments made in a chat room or on a bulletin board/forum are considered slanderous, since their usage resembles casual conversation.
For a person to bring a claim of defamation, it must be shown that the statement:
- was made to somebody other than the claimant;
- has caused or would be likely to cause serious harm to the claimant’s reputation (Defamation Act 2013, s 1(1)). Harm to the reputation of a body that trades for profit is not ‘serious harm’ unless it has caused or is likely to cause the body serious financial loss (Defamation Act 2013, s 1(2));
- may expose the claimant to contempt, disliking, hatred or ridicule;
- may cause the claimant to be shunned by society or avoided by people;
- was clearly applicable to the claimant, although they do not necessarily have to be named (eg, ‘the head of London Metropolitan Police Force’ would be sufficient without explicitly naming the claimant).
If someone claims that a person has made defamatory statements about them, the onus is on the person who made the statements to prove that the statements are true.
If libel is proven, damages are then assessed, which are affected by numerous criteria including:
- How widespread the news was (the more widely circulated the story is, the greater the damage usually).
- Who sees the statement (if interested parties have seen the allegations, the damage may be considered more grievous. For example, if a statement about somebody’s business conduct was published in a specialist publication, even if the circulation is small, the damages may be high because potential clients could see the statement and be deterred from trading with that person).
- Loss of earnings will usually be taken into account, though they can be open to interpretation and it must be possible to show a link between the loss of earnings and the statement in question.
‘General damages’ are awarded with the aim of vindicating a claimant and compensating them for their lowered reputation and their injured feelings.
For more information on:
- Defences for defamation
- Criminal defamation
- Repeating defamatory claims