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 of 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 (e.g. defamatory statements which are spoken) is known as slander.
Defamation and chat rooms
Libel can also includes 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, the following must apply:
The statement has to have been made to somebody other than the claimant. It is not defamation if the statement is not heard by anyone but the claimant.
The statement has to be in words
The statement may damage the person’s reputation by making people who hear or read the statement think worse of them.
The statement may expose the claimant to contempt, disliking, hatred or ridicule.
The statement may cause the claimant to be shunned by society or avoided by people
The statement must be clearly applicable to the claimant, although they do not necessarily have to be named (e.g. “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.
The judge or jury do not decide straight away how damaged a claimant has been but rather just confirm that the accusations are or are not false and damaging.
Next, they decide the damages, 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 some interested parties have seen the allegations, the damage may be considered to be far 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.
Take the case of a false story in a newspaper. It is possible for the author of the statement, the paper, the retailers of the paper and even the distributors can be sued depending on the case. On the internet, a statement’s author, the site owner and the ISP can all be sued and posting a link could also be considered a defamatory act if that link takes the person to some libellous material.
Repeating libellous claims
People who repeat libellous information can also be sued, which means that a person who takes another person’s statement as fact and repeats it can also be charged with libel. Victims of libel should be aware that a strong and frequently used defence by the accused is to claim that when the false information was printed elsewhere at any earlier date, the person did not complain. As such, it is prudent for a victim of libel to make a complaint on the first offence.
Extent of libel
If it were possible to charge people with libel for any and every false comment about another person, there would be no end to it. Also, people should be able to say disparaging things about others if that is their opinion, so long as this is within reasonable grounds. This is known as a defence of fair comment.
Libel does not apply to the dead, so it is legally acceptable to make untrue and damaging statements about them.
Slander differs from libel in that the claimant must usually have to prove that the defamatory comments have had an adverse effect upon their reputation, which may entail proving that the statement has done financial damage or lost business as a result.
However, there are circumstances where no damages need to be proven. This includes allegations that relate to:
Criminal offences that are punishable by imprisonment
Unchastity (e.g. adultery)
Libel laws are currently receiving a lot of interest and it is likely that the law will change soon. Groups as disparate as scientists, politicians, comedians and journalists are claiming that the laws are draconian and prohibitive. They claim that the current law stands in opposition to the public interest by hampering progress in various fields.
Lobby groups are making recommendations including:
Transferring the burden of proof to the claimant
Making defamatory comments that are in the public interest easier to defend
Ensuring that no case is heard in the UK unless at least 10% of the copies were circulated there
Jack Straw, the British justice secretary, has described the current law as ‘unbalanced’ and formed a special working group to investigate reforms.