The Talkswindon Quick Guide To DefamationWhat is defamation?
It is a law created to protect individuals or organisations from unwarranted, mistaken or untruthful attacks on their reputation. This means the publication of any statement which:
- Exposes them to hatred, ridicule or contempt
- Causes them to be shunned or avoided
- Discredits them in their trade, business or profession
- Generally lowers them in the eyes of right thinking members of society
Posting a defamatory statement on an Internet message board or community area is the same as publishing it in a newspaper or magazine and can result in a court case if a formal complaint is made. Both the publisher, (in this case the BBC), and the author, (you), risk being sued for making a defamatory statement. And there is no Legal Aid for defamation.
How to avoid it
Get your facts right. In English law YOU have to prove that what you write is true, rather than the person you've targeted having to prove that you're wrong. And proving things in court can be a very difficult and costly process.Don't make these common mistakes...
- Repeating others- If you repeat defamatory remarks about people or organisations made by other people, you will be just as liable to be sued as they are.
- Jumping to conclusions - If Mr X is seen going into a hotel room with a call-girl, this does not necessarily mean he enjoyed a 'night of passion', and will certainly not prove that he did.
- Exaggeration - Be very careful about the words you use. A factory may release chemicals into the air, but describing it as 'poisoning the atmosphere' could well be defamatory.
- Representing all sides - Presenting both sides of an argument is often good practice, but not a defence against defamation.
- Innuendo - To say Mrs Y doesn't recycle her waste paper may sound harmless. But to people who know that Mrs Y is a Green Party activist, the implication is that she is hypocritical in her politics.
- Inference - If somebody was guilty of fraud once, calling him a fraudster in a way which might suggest he's still doing the same can be seen as defamation.
What isn't Defamation?
- 'Allegedly' - In spite of its use in a popular current affairs panel game, adding the word 'allegedly' to a statement you cannot prove does not stop it being defamation.
- You can make negative statements about a large group of individuals, like the government or a local authority, but not about any specific person within those organisations. So it is possible to defame the Prime Minister or the President of the USA, but not their governments.
Defending a statement
- Dead people cannot be defamed.
In the event that you are accused of defamation, there are three main defences...
- Justification - This is the most common defence against defamation. It means that you have evidence that will stand up in a court of law that can prove what you are saying is true.
- Fair Comment - Honest opinion on a matter of public interest can also be used as a defence against defamation, provided the statement was made without 'malice' and based on established facts. (In legal terms, malice means making a comment based on facts you knew to be untrue, commenting on facts without caring whether they were true or not, or simply setting out to discredit someone.)
- Privilege - There are times when complete freedom of speech, without any risk of defamation, is in the public interest. For example, the Bill of Rights allows MPs to say what they like within the debating chambers of the House of Commons, so they can discuss issues without worrying about being sued.
The information provided on this site is intended as a guide only. It does not constitute legal advice.