Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What is Defamation

The law of defamation protects people against untrue
statements that could damage their reputation, and is
probably the single most important area of law for any
journalist to know about. One of the reasons for this is that defamation can affect journalists in any field of work. If you work, for example, for a trade magazine or in the women’s press, it’s quite possible that you will never need to think
about court reporting or official secrets after you’ve passed
your law exams. But almost every kind of journalist, on
almost every kind of publication, has the potential to
defame someone, and some of the most high-profile
defamation cases have involved quite small publications.
The second reason why defamation is such an important part of the law for journalists is that being successfully sued for it can be very expensive. Damages in defamation cases are usually decided by juries; as a result, they are very unpredictable, and can be extremely high. One
careless piece of research or unchecked statement could end up costing a publisher tens of thousands of pounds in damages – sometimes even hundreds of thousands – and as much again, sometimes more, in legal fees. Big national papers can absorb such losses (though decreasing circulations mean even they find it difficult), but for smaller magazines, losing a libel case can be disastrous. The magazine Living Marxism was actually forced into liquidation after being order to pay damages of £375,000 in a libel case in 2000. Because of this, most publishers are very nervous of libel actions. One result of this is that, faced with a threat of libel, even where the
journalist believes that the story is legally sound,
many publishers will choose not to run it, or to water it down. In this way the threat of a libel action can be used to prevent publication of stories that really ought to be
brought to the public’s attention. Similarly, many
publishers, faced with a complaint about a story that has
already been published, will back down, print an apology and if necessary, agree to pay some compensation, rather than allow the case to go to court and risk huge legal costs
and possibly damages. In fact most libel claims are settled out of court, and court hearings are rare. None of this means that journalists should be so scared of being sued that we never write anything that upsets anyone, but it does mean that every journalist needs to understand
thoroughly the basic rules of this area of the law – not just
so that you know what not to write or say, but because defamation law does give some protection to press
freedom, and by knowing the rules, you can often safely
say more than you might imagine. Many newspapers
and magazines publish potentially defamatory material every day but by making sure that what they print is covered by one of several defenses to defamation, they can do so safely.

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