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Mind your language! The web makes libel a real possibility

Defamation is an untrue attack on someone’s reputation.

You could be sued if you issued a press release, or a statement, that contained a defamatory statement.
If you publish it, you are responsible.
There’s no such thing as ‘accidental libel’.
Cases are very hard to win.

The test:

Do the words TEND TO (in other words, might they:
1. Cause someone to be shunned or avoided?
2. Expose them to ridicule, hatred or contempt?
3. Lower them in the eyes of right thinking people?
4. Disparage them in their office, trade or profession?

How do you tell?

A simple test is: How would YOU feel if someone published the statement about you?
Identification

Defamation can only happen if the person who has been defamed is IDENTIFIABLE.
But there is no safety in not naming someone. Leaving out a name is pointless if people can work out who the person is from other information.

It can also be more dangerous, since other people, with similar details, could be defamed if their friends etc thought you were referring to them.

And there is no safety in giving a few clues: eg ‘A certain optician in Upford High Street is not qualified to do his job.’
Publishing this would mean that every optician in Upford High Street could sue you.

It is also possible to libel a group of people, providing the group comprises fewer than 15 people and has an ‘identity’ – for instance: the directors of Brown & Son, or Uptown police CID.

These are some of the common libel dangers:

Danger 1: Motive

Never speculate on someone’s motive for doing something. A motive cannot be proved.
For example:

A spokesman said: ‘We have discussed the matter with the leader of Pembrokeshire County Council and he has accepted responsibility, presumably with one eye on the May elections.’
Or

‘A spokesman said: ‘We’ve met Mr Bowerman before. He’s only in it for the money.’

Danger 2: Denial

Never issue a denial that repeats the original defamation. This could trigger another libel action.
For example:

A spokesman said: ‘We deny issuing any statement alleging that Upford’s highways director is unfit for his post and should resign.’

Danger 3: Rumours

Never repeat a rumour. You could be asked to prove that it is true.

For example:

A spokeswoman said: ‘We have heard that a gang from Blakely’s were working on the site moments before the explosion.’
Danger 4: Disguised allegations

It’s easy to cloak defamatory statements in grand language.
For example:

A spokeswoman said: ‘If Councillor Evans wanted to resign before the end of his term of office, we regret that he used our reservoir project as an excuse.’

Here, the spokeswoman is implying Councillor Evans is a liar – and if he sues, she will have to prove it.
Or

For example:

A spokesman said: ‘We believe the MP was less than frank about the matter when he appeared before the Select Committee.’

Again, the spokesman is implying that the MP was dishonest.

Danger 5: Careless words

Words matter in libel law.

It is dangerous to state: ‘The factory is poisoning the atmosphere with its fumes.’

You may be able to prove the factory is polluting the atmosphere. But can you prove it is poisoning it – a much more serious allegation.

For example:

A spokesman said: ‘Mrs Jones has contacted us about her electricity bill. She has five children and is on benefits, yet her partner only pays her just £45 a week.’

Here, the words ‘yet’ and ‘just’ imply the partner is not paying as must as he should be. But if he is paying the amount determined by the court, then he can sue for the implication that he is underpaying.

Danger 6: Exaggerations

Again, back to words.

For example:

A spokesman said: ‘A local authority workman deliberately removed the manhole cover.’
Or

‘Western Gas engineers always make mistakes like this.

The words in italics would be difficult to prove.

Danger 7: Words with two meanings

Take care with words that can have different meanings – eg, gay.

For example:

A spokesman said: ‘We will be meeting Mr Coates, the borough engineer, and his partner, Mr. White, on Friday morning.’
Is Mr White his business partner – or something else? Clarity is important.

Danger 8: Improper conduct

Don’t make allegations you cannot prove.

For example:

A spokeswoman said: ‘Our investigations show that Thames & Co’s engineers did not secure the site valve.’
Or

For example:

A spokesman said: ‘Bastows’ electrical work in Salford fell short of industry standards.’
Danger 9: Arrests

Never name someone who has been arrested. Wait until they are charged, or released without charge.

Danger 10: Publishing online

Beware linking to a defamatory article on another site.
Protecting yourself

Your press statements and press releases are protected by qualified privilege, if you are:
1. A local authority.
2. A government department or quango.
3. Police press office.

This means you cannot be sued for anything defamatory that you release to the media or publish on your website.
A press conference convened by any PR / comms department is covered by qualified privilege, provided the conference is on a matter of genuine public interest. Press releases given out at the press conferences are also covered by qualified privilege.

This means that your spokespeople can make defamatory comments about other people without being sued. And the media can report them without being sued.

However, spokespeople should not make statements that they know are untrue. This could compromise privilege.

Cleland Thom
Director
CTJT

This extract is taken from the PR Media Law Guide, price £19.95. To order a copy, contact: cleland@ctjt.biz

Cleland Thom does media law training and consultancy to a number of corporation and public authorities, including GPSJ, United Utilities, World Trade Group, Herts County Council, London Borough of Brent and Three Rivers District Council.

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