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Tips on how to avoid libelling people

There’s a wonderful irony that all journalists are enjoying, namely that celebs are now being sued for defamation. Step forward twits: Sally Bercow, Alan Davies and others!

Perish the thought: celebs sued for defamation!

What these careless twitterers seem to have forgotten is that their tweets have propelled them into publishing – just like the tabloid newspapers some celebs despise! At least tabloids know the defamation laws and take calculated risks; those half-witted Twitterers who’ve libelled Lord McAlpine have only got their egos, arrogance and ignorance to blame. If you’re going to Tweet your opinions and jokes to your followers, it’s as well to to know the laws of defamation first. Might save you shedloads!

What fun to hear all the desperate mitigations: “I didn’t mean any harm”, ” I used the word ‘alleged’; “I was only reporting what other people were saying” and, most priceless of all “My tweet was trying to  protect him”.  Excuses that most journalists were taught at Hack-School that would never hold much water.

I’m all for freedom of expression but, as with all freedoms, they come with some responsibilities too!

So, here are defamation tips for Twitterers and others, famous and not-so-famous. Nothing too long or complicated!

  1. First of all, what’s defamation? Lots of  legal expositions but this one seems to fit the bill: it’s an unjustified attack on someone’s personal reputation, e.g. the McAlpine fiasco.
  2. Defamation covers libel and slander: expect defamatory tweets to fall into libel camp!
  3. Almost uniquely in English law, in libel cases the burden of proof lies with the author / publisher and not the complainant; in other words, you have to prove that what you write is true; the person you’ve targeted does not have to prove that you’re wrong;
  4. Defamation is a civil dispute which, more often than not, is settled out of court because it’s often difficult to predict the size of damages that a jury might award; furthermore, losers may be required to pay the legal costs of both sets of lawyers, and we all know how much the like their bills!
  5. If it’s a dispute that goes to court, it’ll be heard in a civil court;
  6. The judge will tell the  jury that it must consider and decide if the ‘offending’ statement tends (please note) to any one of the following: a) expose the complainant to hatred, ridicule or contempt b) cause him or her to the shunned or avoided; c) lower the complainant in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally; d) disparage the complainant in his/her business, trade, office or profession (think Lord McAlpine has a case here!); I shall explain the phrases ‘tends to’ and ‘right-thinking members of society generally’ in a future post, so stay tuned!
  7. Publishers (read Tweeters in this case) have a number of  defences against libel claims – the most persuasive is that the complainant is dead (happily, Lord McAlpine is very much alive!); I shall go into defences in a future posts;
  8. Important point for Tweeters who think they’re being clever: their words may be an innuendo, i.e. have a ‘hidden’ meaning that’s clear to people with a special knowledge; or create an inference that’s obvious to everybody and therefore, perhaps, defamatory;
  9. Government, local and national, cannot sue as institutions although individual representatives can; but… a Corporation can sue for defamation that impacts adversely on its reputation;
  10. The simple way to avoid defamation is: a) who am I broadcasting/writing/tweeting/facebooking about and might they sue? b) is what I am saying potentially defamatory? c) do I have a defence?
One more thing. Best to take your time and think: the process of instant publishing often encourages people who engage their fingers before their brains!
Happy Tweeting!

 

 

 

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