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Media and the law: Defamation

Media and the law: DefamationJournalists have to be particularly careful what they write and say. Get the lowdown on safe reporting.

Journalists get a bad press for using underhanded tactics to get the scoop. Like any industry, however, they are subject to the rule of law.
Defamation and Contempt of Court are the two main areas that journalists must be wary of when reporting.

What is defamation?

Defamation is when a person is falsely accused of an offence or their character or actions are attacked.
Defamation can occur in written words or images (libel), or spoken words (slander). In all cases it must be read or heard by a third party.
A person cannot be found guilty of defamation if the statement is true. However, it’s up to the journalist to prove the truth of their statement, which is not always easy.

How is it dealt with?

Under English law, a defamation victim who has been libelled (written defamation) can sue even if they have not suffered financial loss.
However, a person who has been slandered (spoken defamation) must prove that actual damage has been suffered, except in Scotland.

What if I defame someone?

You can defend yourself in court if you can prove one or more of the following:

  • you didn’t publish the statement
  • the defamatory statement doesn’t refer to the alleged victim
  • the statement's meaning was not defamatory
  • the statement was true
  • that the statement was for comment on a matter of public interest

Common cases involving defamation

Defamation on the internet is becoming increasingly common, particularly with the rise in blogging and citizen journalism.
It is possible for an internet service provider (ISP) to be liable for the content of sites it hosts. 
In a similar way, employers are liable for the potentially defamatory actions of their employees. This is known as vicarious liability.
Employers should draw up an email policy setting out clearly what use may and may not be made of email to protect themselves.

What about my private emails?

It is possible to defame someone through private email. The email message is often relayed through several servers before reaching its intended recipient. At each stage, a third party may have an opportunity to read its contents.
This only applies if the email is intercepted and read by a third party.