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Measuring the Incremental Role that Defamation Plays in UK Media Law

Considering a career in journalism is much more than simply writing, in fact it could arguably be one of the smallest parts of the craft. From networking to interviewing to sourcing the story, being a journalist is being a researcher with a curious temperament. Although the UK has a free press in comparison to some other parts of the world, there are still laws in place to ensure accurate news reporting, forefronting public interest.

There are many pillars that uphold UK media law, but one the largest factors that a journalist and a publication must consider is that of defamation. If a journalist publishes a defamatory statement or news story, they can be sued so it’s important to know the basics.

What is defamation?

First and foremost it is the liberty of a journalist to write a fair and accurate account of a news story. Lord Justice Lawton, in 1965, said:

“It is one if the professional tasks of newspapers to unmask the fraudulent and the scandalous. It is in the public interest to do it. It is a job which newspapers have done time and time again in their long history.”

However, UK law can protect an individual from an unjustified media attack.There can be risk of damaging a person’s reputation by reporting an insinuating story that may not be true and even run the risk of profiling a person. Discrimination by race, disability or religion would be in violation of the UK’s Editors Code of Practice and could put a journalist at risk of being sued for defamation if the public made assumptions based on a report. Defamation has the power to risk the livelihood of a person or business and even bring danger to them by the public. 

Defamation is when defamatory statements can be published or spoken and affects the reputation of a person, company or organisation. The intricacies of whether a statement is defamatory are outlined in court and this guide will cover the basics of what makes a defamatory statement. 

Defamatory Statements that are made can be published and written in a permanent form, which cannot be defended, is known as Libel, for example in newspapers or an online blog. Statements that are spoken, would be known as Slander, such as speaking on a podcast or live radio broadcast. 

What makes a statement defamatory?

In accordance with Section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013, a statement is not defamatory unless it has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to a claimants reputation. A claimant is a person who brings about action to a court and refers to the person or organisation that is being defamed. 

According to Mark Hanna and Mike Dodd a statement is defamatory if it is seriously affects a person’s reputation by: 

  • Exposing him/her/them to hatred, ridicule or contempt, or causing him/her/them to be shunned or avoided
  • Lowering him/her/them in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally
  • Disparaging the person in hi/her/their business, trade, office or profession

If the claimant can prove, in the case of a business, they have suffered financial loss, this would be proof of being able to go ahead with a case of defamation. When using the phrase ‘right-thinking members of society generally’ it is not enough to simply display or show the defamatory statement, but must be able to prove that the statement puts them in a position of non conformity when referring to the general standard of a certain community. 

An example of a prominent defamation case is when entertainer, Robbie Williams, won ‘substantial’ damages from the publisher Northern and Shell in 2005. The story disclosed details of an alleged sexual encounter that he had with a man in a Manchester club lavatory, insinuating that he was concealing his true sexual identity. The allegations were proved false and was followed by a published apology from the magazines.

How words are used is very important

Although a publication or journalist may be faced with the risk of being sued for defamation, the way that something is read is not always how the journalist intended for it to be interpreted

With the case of inferences and innuendos, the play on words carry more than one meaning. When referring to an inference, it is a statement with a secondary meaning which can be understood by someone without special knowledge. For example, stating that someone saw a celebrity leave a bar who was unable to walk in a straight line, infers that the celebrity was drunk. Because the actual word ‘drunk’ was not explicitly used, there would have to be a dispute, in court, as to whether or not the statement was defamatory.

With regards to innuendo however, it is a statement which can be seemingly  defamatory when people with specialist knowledge can assume a double meaning. For example, if a member of parliament was to be seen leaving a house that seemed normal for a residential area was reported, but only some people knew that the house was in fact an illegal gambling house, could still run the risk of a defamation case. The claimant would have to prove that the innuendo was understood by those with the special knowledge of the house being an illegal gambling ring.

A case study showing an example of this is the 1986 case of Lord Gowie, a former Cabinet Minister, received ‘substantial damages’ due to an innuendo published in The Sun newspaper that made reference to the spending habits of the Cabinet Minister. There was reference made to phrases such as ‘snort’, ‘silver spoon’ which would be considered as drug jargon by those with knowledge of these terms. As the claims would impact his reputation the article was considered as defamatory.

Defamation is an extremely complicated process, particularly when it comes to British media, as there is a fine line between restricting the freedom of speech that the press has and wrongly defaming someone. This was a basic guide and introduction to defamation and you can find out more using the sources below.